Mib 123 (4): Men in Black 3

(Turns chair around, sits down)

So, you made a sequel, a decade later, to a sequel that was itself made five years after the original. The production was functionally cursed, the half of the movie set in 2012 was filmed before the half set in 1969 was written, you lost at least one cast member, functionally recast another and…

It. WORKS.

Men in Black 3 is that time you flip a coin and it lands on it’s edge. Despite all the production horrors, reported brilliantly by Simon Brew whose Film Stories you all should be following, Men in Black 3 isn’t just good in its own right. It engages with issues the previous movies flirted with, ties the trilogy off with just extraordinary neatness and opens the door for Men in Black International in a way that it’s never given enough credit for.

J is now a fifteen year veteran of the MiB and K has been back for a full decade. The pair still work out of the New York office, still barely talk and after Z dies and K delivers a…utilitarian…eulogy J begins to despair that he and his partner will ever truly connect. And then, one day, his partner isn’t there. K died in 1969 and, as the world faces total invasion, J has no choice but to go back in time and save him.

Yep, they pull a reverse Terminator which has some consequences. Jones is essentially a cameo here, playing K at the start and end of the movie and continuing very much in the player of games mould we saw in 2. The moment word comes down about the prison break, K knows what’s coming for him and the movie plays with cowboy imagery to great success. K, gun in hand, waiting for the threat he can never see coming, is powerful stuff and the film neatly sells us on just why this has him rattled so badly long before we find out. The weight of that seemingly immutable past is a neat counterbalance to Griffin, played by Michael Stuhlberg. Again, Griffin is a mcguffin with lines but they’re really good lines and Stuhlberg is great as the serene alien perpetually living every possible time line. His delivery on ‘It’s an enormous pain in the ass’  is one of the best moments of the movie and gives you a sense of the price of wonder, something these movies have always excelled at. In fact, his speech about his favourite moment in human history is one fo the highlights of the franchise. Convincingly alien, charmingly real and vital to the plot. Griffin is the franchise’s third run at this kind of character but third time really is the charm.

The villain impresses too. Boris the animal, the Boglodyte criminal who travels back in time and kills K, is the one place the movie could fall down. Jermaine Clement is normally either fantastic or playing Jermaine Clement but here we get a little of both. Boris is a Tim Currry voiced nightmare, a smooth talking berserker who presents as a genuine threat in the exact way poor Lara Flynn Boyle in 2 was never given a chance to do as Serleena. There’s actual jeopardy here, actual threat. Hell, the movie opens with Boris winning and everything else is a holding action. Even better, we see the moment he wins and that not only gives the movie weight but also makes J’s actions even more meaningful.

Smith, famously, had precisely no fun on this movie and honestly it shows. But it shows in the best of ways, as he channels the rumored creative frustration into a very different and in many ways much more interesting J. His exasperation at his partner is matched only by his confusion at how relatively happy go lucky the man is in the past. His humor has become laconic and deadpan in a way that mirrors his mentor and the moments the movie deals with the racial politics of 1969 crackle in a way nothing else in this franchise does. It’s not just that J is pissed, because he clearly is. it’s that for the first time in a long time, he’s pissed at something with just one head, something simultaneously banal and genuinely evil. The first act’s best moments all explore this and it’s territory the franchise has never gone near before or since. It’s a shame too because Smith, and the structure around him, can absolutely take it. These movies arguably work best in the past, and MiB3 has the most fun in 1969. Bill Hader’s cameo as a startlingly grumpy Andy Warhol, the MASSIVE neuralyzer J is loaded into and the Apollo 11 centric ending all speak strongly to that. 

If you were worried this was just Smith in grim mode either, it’s not. The same permanently terrified young cop we meet in MiB jumps off the Chrysler building. The same fast talking pit bull of a detective chases down the galaxy’s most dangerous criminal using little besides brains and determination. But this time we also see him open up to his partner in a way K has never reciprocated. This time too, we also see why these two men are so closely connected and Smith, Brolin and Mike Colter all make that moment work extraordinarily well.

So, lets talk about Josh Brolin who doesn’t so much play K here as embody Tommy Lee Jones thirty years ago in his entirety. Brolin is so startlingly good in the role you end up seeing through him. This is K thirty years ago, just with a slightly different face. It’s a shame in a way because the startlingly good work Brolin does here gets a little lost as a result. In particular, he shows us the lighter side of the archetypal Man in Black, and his flashes of humour and polite, country flirtation are poignant precisely because we know the elder K doesn’t have them. This is K before Serleena, K before Edgar. K before he began losing partners to old age. There’s still hope and light in him and Brolin shows us all that to great effect. The implied, chaste romance with O (Played with more grace and poise than the tiny role really deserves by Alice Eve and Emma Thompson) is especially touching.

But what Brolin really makes work is the ending, not of the movie, but of the case. Etan Cohen’s script hides it in plain sight but the ending is still a gut punch as we discover in short order that J’s father was head of security for Apollo 11, that he died saving their lives and that young J saw it happen. Future Luke Cage Mike Colter is great as James Edwards Senior and registers with limited screen time.  He makes us care and given this is the franchise’s big reveal, that’s vital. This is why K looks after J, this is why K is like he is. The one time he failed, a child lost their dad and K’s penance for that has been watching over J his whole life and eventually recruiting him. A child loses their innocence but in return gains the stars. That’s tragic and poetic on a level the franchise hasn’t hit since the first one. It’s also just astonishingly tidy plotting, wrapping up the trilogy with a send off that recontextualizes and relaunches J and K’s partnership but also means we never have to see them again. Or to put it another way, the middle of the flight may be turbulent, but the franchise makes one Hell of a landing.

The first Men in Black trilogy is almost always fun, but not always sure why. The first is slick, stylish and toys with big ideas that the second singularly fails, for the most part, to follow up on. The third rescues the whole thing and ties it up into one of the most closely plotted franchises in recent blockbuster history. it’s a little dated, sure, a little uncertain of itself at times but it’s also relentlessly charming and, when it lets go, soars in a way few of it’s compatriots do. Don’t look at the red light, but do look at the first and third movies at least.