Review: ‘Men in Black 3’ Is Fun and Surprisingly Poignant

A witty and hilarious introduction. Weak, dude.

Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures

Men in Black 3 (2012):

The Plot: Time travel! Bromance! Revenge! The three r’s unite in this wacky new installment of the Men in Black series. This time, Agent J (Will Smith) needs to travel back in time to save the life of his partner of fourteen years, Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones). Aiding J is a younger, slightly warmer K (Josh Brolin), and an alien named Griffin, who can see all possible futures. The bad guy is Boris the Butcher (Jemaine Clement), whose arm K shot off in 1969. Now, Boris is going back in time to get revenge. Also, there’s an alien invasion in the present? I guess?

Longtime fans of the series have most likely already seen this movie, but what of us casual viewers? I’m sure that even we want this film to stay true to its roots and retain its quirky, sometimes dark humor. Well, I’m happy to say that it does. It may have been 14 years since the first Men in Black, but unlike certain other belated sequels—I’m looking at you, George and Steve—this one keeps the tone of its predecessors. The alien designs are still highly inventive and kind of gross, and the humor ranges from dry wit to broad physical comedy and Will Smith keeping it real, which is a type of comedy all its own.

The J/K team dynamic is the same as ever. To start with, anyway. One of the things that I really liked about Men in Black 3 was how effectively it explores that dynamic and uses it to develop the characters. After 14 years, they’ve finally reached that point in their relationship where J has started to wonder just why it is that K is so grumpy. It may seem a little weird that it took him 14 years to do that, but the movie makes it work. Tommy Lee Jones puts a layer of regret behind the cranky façade this time. At the beginning of the film, K seems tired, and we get the sense that his gruff exterior is more a show of restraint than anything else. On top of that, J’s concern for his partner seems genuine. The old hip cop/old cop formula isn’t working for them as well as it used to. That the film establishes this in the midst of goofy humor and action scenes that land on the right side of silly is kind of a miracle.

Columbia Pictures
As you can see, things get pretty serious.

MIB3 hits that balance largely due to a great script by Tropic Thunder co-writer Etan Cohen. He knows how to keep things light without losing any necessary dramatic weight. Even with the presence of both goofiness and silliness, actions have consequences. Well, yeah, but don’t they always? In real life, yes. But not always in movies. In The Avengers, for instance, we go in knowing that the heroes will win, and that none of them, not even the superfluous Hawkeye and Black Widow, will die. Does that rob the final battle sequence of all significance? Only a little. I mean, it’s still cool that all these lone wolves have learned to act as a team. Fair enough.

Here, though, the stakes are more personal, and somehow higher. Higher than saving the world from an alien invasion? Yep. Wait, isn’t that the plot of the movie? Only a little. The alien invasion in MIB3 is a Macguffin. It’s a plot point, sure, but the real urgency comes from J’s mission to save his partner. J’s friendship with the younger K adds depth to both characters, and raises the stakes.

And that brings me to the other key component that makes MIB3 work: the actors take the material seriously. Sure, they play some scenes for laughs, and sure, Will Smith seems like he’s frozen in a 90s bubble, but everyone plays it straight where it counts. Josh Brolin, in particular, does an excellent job of bringing K to life. He gets the Tommy Lee Jones voice and mannerisms perfectly. The young K is a lot like the older one, but much more willing to drop his guard. There’s a moment where J just stares grinning at his partner’s younger self, relieved to find him alive and amused to find him so unchanged. There’s real love there. That’s why J’s mission to save K is more important than his mission to save the Earth. The threat of an alien invasion is barely given time to hover, but the strength of that friendship is developed throughout the entire film.

Columbia Pictures
Join MIB: All the jetpacks and subtle office romance you can handle.

Later in the movie, young K decides to prove that he isn’t old and cranky yet by telling his partner something personal about himself. He drops the gruff exterior and comes alive, sharing one of his fondest memories. Both J and the audience get some perspective on the K we’ve known for the last two movies. The scene also sets up for a big revelation at the end of the film, which explains a lot about K and adds further depth to an already well-developed friendship.

The other performances are all spot on as well. Bill Hader has a fantastic appearance as a 60s-hating MIB agent undercover as Andy Warhol. Michael Stuhlbarg, star of recent Coen Brothers film A Serious Man, makes the Oracle-like Griffin the right combination of awkward and lovable, and Jemaine Clement shows up to do his best Tim Curry impression (it’s pretty good). He’s entertaining, but ultimately, it’s a forgettable role. Emma Thompson does a good turn as Agent O, a mirror to the older K’s quiet reserve. Alice Eve appears as the younger O, and does a good job of suggesting the same trajectory made by Josh Brolin’s K.

With a stellar (pun intended) cast, a smart script, and a good sense of humor, Men in Black 3 is both lots of fun and surprisingly poignant. Hey, isn’t that pretty much the title of this review? It certainly is, disembodied voice. Well observed.

One last thing, though. Die-hard fans of the original film’s 90s cheese factor may not like the new theme song. It’s provided by Pitbull, whose dulcet tones have graced clubs and college parties across the world for like a year now. Maybe two. But I don’t hold that against him. In fact, I really enjoyed the new theme. It made me feel cool. My only criticism is that it’s entitled “Back in Time.” That means that whenever I listen to this:

All I hear is this:

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