Men in Black is such a perfectly neat story that it was alway going to find an audience and that audience was going to want a sequel. A sequel that, by its very existence, would damage that self same perfect neatness. Late stage capitalism, it seems, is once again a hell of a drug.
Robert Gordon and Barry Fanaro’s script faces the near impossible challenge of bringing Agent K back from the thoroughly earned happy ending he got in the first movie. Even worse, they have to give J an arc, explore and expand the world, give J a compelling reason to want to blow up his mentor’s life and hit the same notes as last time just in a new and exciting order. It manages less than half of these things. What it does manage, it manages very well.
But, we’ll get there. Because first we need to talk about the opening scene which is very nearly everything bad, and good, about the movie. After a neatly realised ‘Mysteries of the Unexplained’ style TV show gives us a graceful info dump, we watch a ship furiously barrel through space
destroying everything it passes. Danny Elfman’s wonderfully stuff, yet somehow mischievous, theme swells, the ship arrives on Earth and…is revealed to be very very tiny. All good so far right? Then the alien aboard, Serleena, chooses the shape of a Victoria’s Secret model. Then she
attacks and kills a man who saw who land. Then she realises that by eating him she’s given herself a massive stomach. Then she goes behind a bush and vomits him up, and, impossible body intact, strides off to do space crime. It’s rare that a script embrace misogyny, fat shaming and body shaming all in the space of thirty seconds. Having now seen a movie do exactly that, the rarity should absolutely be cause for celebration. This is the movie in a nutshell; a witty idea wrapped in a sexist joke, a smart emotional beat buried beneath instantly dated pop culture references. One step forward, three back, over and over and over. It’s like a bad tempered cover version of the first movie and some of the jokes are genuinely tone deaf from a modern perspective. A gag about Tony Shalhoub’s Jeebs’ nose is so blatantly anti-Semitic it made me gasp. Scrad and Charlie, a two headed henchman played by Johnny Knoxville and some terrible CGI, are the living avatars of lowest hanging, most over ripe fruit. Even Rip Torn’s Z is brought low by some egregiously terrible wire work and a little too much screen
time. As for poor Lara Flynn Boyle as Serleena, this isn’t a role it’s a diet with lines. She isn’t bad, she isn’t good, she just hits her marks because that’s the best anyone can do with a character this non-existent.
Oh and every single female character is either a villain, a vestal embodiment of all that’s good with precisely no agency whatsoever or the long suffering sidekick to a conspiracy theorist side character who is so generic you can still see the price tag on the back of his head.
So why bother?
Honestly there’s a strong case, especially considering just how freakishly good MiB 3 is, not to. This is the sequel as evil Ginger Rogers, doing everything the first one did just backwards, in heels, half as well and twice as grumpy about it. And yet, two things here really, indisputably work; Smith and Jones. Jones’ permanently unflappable K finds himself faced with his ultimate nemesis; himself. K’s plans within plans within plans give the movie the narrative muscle the characters can’t and the treasure hunt that makes up the middle act is really very good fun. There’s a hint here, and it’s something 3 dabbles with too, of K as a chess player on near Doctor Who levels, a man endlessly thinking ten steps ahead and painfully aware of what that costs him. In a series format, that makes for fascinating stories. In a movie franchise, it makes for a tantalizing hint of what we almost got.
But while Jones is impressive, this, like 3, is Smith’s movie. Smith, through reputation and some less than successful choices, doesn’t get the props he deserves as a straight actor. He’s very good and endlessly capable of carrying a movie on his shoulders and that’s exactly what he does here. The film is always at its best when it explores the human cost of working for the agency and the poetry of what happens when that sacrifice is accepted. J’s loneliness, and growing reputation as a loose cannon, is genuinely poignant in spots and a smarter sequel would have really focused in on that. Instead, we get a sweet, but sketched in romance with a sweet, but sketched in Rosario Dawson. Dawson impresses, because she doesn’t know how to do bad work, but her character is literally a Mcguffin with lines and she and Smith can only do so much. It’s a real shame too. I’d take Laura sticking around over the interminable ‘Huh…CHICKS’ scene that closes the movie any day.
Despite this Smith especially impresses and the movie, just, barely, lands. There’s a solid closing action beat, some jokes that really land (‘The last suit you’ll ever put on…again…’) and a rock solid emotional core. Unfortunately, all that’s orbiting it is debris.