The journeys of Men in Black III

The days of allowing the third film in a trilogy to be a fan-only, phoned-in mess are over, and with the quality of the first two Men in Black films there is no reason not to have expected great things from this one.

Luckily, it delivers.

Agent K has been killed in the past by a time-traveling alien, and Agent J has to follow the alien back and stop it from happening. Also, of course, the Earth will be destroyed by an overwhelming, unstoppable invasion force if J fails.

My major concern here was the way time-travel is handled in the story. It’s a dangerous element to add to any canon. Once the characters in a tale have the ability to time travel, it creates some of the worst plot-holes possible in fiction, as it’s such a useful tool, it makes one wonder why it’s not used to solve every problem the characters ever have.

This film does use some good, if trite, plugs for these holes (time-travel is very dangerous, and against intra-galactic law), but it still means that these characters now always have a last-resort fall-back plan once everything else has failed.

It’s a comedy franchise at heart, however, so I’m willing to give the film a bit of leeway in this regard, especially because the effects in the time-travel sequence itself are so much fun. That scene alone is worth the price of admission.

I’m glad the race issue inherent in J’s journey wasn’t completely glossed over, but also wasn’t in focus. Traveling back to the 60’s as a black man, especially one in position of secret authority would pose some unique challenges, and I was hoping that it wouldn’t be completely ignored by the film, as that really would have bothered me.

First, one of the minor characters actually mentions the potential difficulty to him before he leaves. Then, when he gets there, there are a couple of scenes and comments where the issue is subtly hinted at, and one scene, where the issue is fully lamp-shaded. Really, Agent J visits a 1969 which is surprisingly race-tolerant, but the difficult plot issue was dealt with in probably the most effective and tasteful way possible.

It’s interesting that, despite taking place in the past, the film still manages to introduce a few neat gadgets. There are several things that the MiB organization of the 60’s doesn’t quite have yet, yet they have other toys to fill the same roles, like the unicycles that we saw in some of the trailers. This is used to stick to the formula of introducing an agent to the agency throughout the film.

Oddly, the ‘new guy’ trope doesn’t just sit in the part of the story in the past, Agent J is also being shown new things, and boggling at alien behavior in the present, which is a bit strange. One would think that after 14 years in the organization J would be used to weird stuff happening every day, but clearly he hasn’t seen everything yet.

The greatest part of the film, however, is the dynamic between Will Smith and Josh Brolin. Brolin makes an excellent ‘young’ Agent K. He has all the mannerisms and expressions of that character, first depicted by Tommy Lee Jones so many years ago now, down perfect, and lends the role just the right amount of naïveté and pre-disillusionment to make it feel like this really is a rookie version of that same agent we’ve all come to know through the first two films. This is fortunate since the buddy aspect of the film is where the franchise has always shined. At it’s core, the story is a cop-buddy story, and this third entry in the franchise is no different. 

The only other actor with a large presence in the film is Jemaine Clement, whom you might recognize as half of the comedy musical duo Flight of the Conchords, who pulls out a great performance as our dual villain, Boris the Animal and his young self in the 1960s. The secondary characters are all played-well also, some with a surprising amount of heart, like Michael Stuhlbarg’s performance as the quirky, multi-dimensional alien, Griffon, which is both touching and clever.

It may occasionally be a bit too goofy, but overall the trilogy conclusion is surprisingly revelatory and much more moving than expected. Far from phoning it in, this film might be the most well-written and compellingly wrought flick in the franchise. It is not to be missed on any account.

Men in Black III is in theaters now.