Men in Black 3 Review: Not Quite Back in Black
After many years of watching films from all genres, I've come to the conclusion that making sequels to comedies are much more difficult to make than sequels to films in any other genre. It's not that good comedy sequels are impossible, it's just that comedy films (at least in the U.S.) don't seem to lend themselves to serialized storytelling, a crucial element in the making of a worthwhile sequel.
With that in mind I saw Men in Black 3 this last weekend, which returns Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones to their roles of MIB Agents K and J a decade after Men in Black 2. MIB 3 was better than I expected it to be and it's a better sequel than its immediate predecessor. However, it suffers the same problem as most comedy sequels--namely, how to keep the humor going while providing a story that meaningfully expands upon the first film. Read on for my complete review.
MIB 3 begins with Boris The Animal (played by an unrecognizable Jemaine Clement), an old alien enemy of Agent K, escaping from his lunar prison. Following the escape, Agent K suddenly disappears without a trace, leaving Agent J to travel back to 1969 to save the younger Agent K (Josh Brolin) and prevent an alien invasion of Earth.
MIB 3 is a solid sequel. The time travel premise works better than it does in most time travel movies, and it gives you more insight into why Agent K views J the way he does. (In fact, you'll probably watch the first MIB much differently after seeing MIB 3.) It's also commendable that Rick Baker is back providing exceptional alien makeup effects. Movies like MIB 3 are ideal for effects artists such as Baker, so practical effects aficionados will want to see this movie just for that alone. Unfortunately, MIB 3 almost completely forgets that it's supposed to be funny. It has a few humorous moments here and there, but the sequel feels more like a lighthearted sci-fi action-adventure movie than an actual sci-fi comedy.
Movies like MIB and Ghostbusters before it are essentially parodies of the horror and sci-fi genres, genres that are rife with parody-ready quirks and absurdities. Yet the sequels for both of these movies lost their sense of genre satire and they severely suffer for it. Yes, MIB 3 is certainly better than Ghostbusters 2, but it's better because it relies on action set pieces and a well-written time travel story instead of just repacking the same jokes that were told before. In other words, if you want a solid time travel movie, watch MIB 3; however, if you want an amusing time travel parody, watch Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure or Hot Tub Time Machine. That's MIB 3's biggest disappointment as a comedy sequel, and it's hard to overlook that shortcoming when writing this review. (That said, the sequel does briefly recycle some of the same gags from the previous two films: the revelation that odd real-life celebrities are actually aliens, the unusual anatomies of aliens, goofy-looking alien technology, etc.)
I have no idea why the MIB sequels have a difficult time finding new jokes from the premise that was established in the first movie. The central idea behind MIB is a send-up of the "Men in Black" legend that is frequently and fervently discussed among UFO conspiracy groups. There's plenty of goofy, paranoid humor waiting to be mined from this kind of source material, yet MIB 2 and MIB 3 seem reluctant to stray too far from the jokes told in the first film, as if it will get too strange for mainstream audiences. For that reason, watching MIB 3 piqued my curiosity into seeing the Men in Black animated series, just to see if that cartoon was more willing than its live-action counterpart to embrace the wild and woolly weirdness of sci-fi and UFO culture.
Jones and Smith fit comfortably back into their roles of Agents K and J, although Jones is missing for much of the movie. Brolin does a wonderful job as the younger Agent K, and his performance is key to understanding the movie's plot twist. (Then again, it would've been nice if MIB 3 included a scene between Jones and Brolin where the two different Ks meet. It's a time travel movie, so why not?) Michael Stuhlbarg has lots of fun in the role of Griffin, an alien who can see multiple future timelines; in contrast, the alien menace Boris isn't a particularly memorable villain, even though Clement eagerly chews up the scenery from underneath his alien make-up. Emma Thompson plays Agent O, who steps in to run the MIB agency after the passing of Zed (Rip Torn, who is not in this sequel). Thompson isn't given much to do, and it feels like such a wasted opportunity given her talent and background in genre titles such as the Harry Potter and Nanny McPhee movies. Then again, Alice Eve, who plays the younger version of O, gets even less to do than Thompson.
MIB 3 is an entertaining sequel, it just doesn't work as a comedy. How you feel about that will determine whether you go see it in the theater or wait for it on home video.