Men in Black III shouldn’t have happened. That’s not to say that it was a particularly bad idea – it doesn’t even approach the terrible lows of the sequel that preceded it –but it is a disaster of Hollywood mismanagement. To call it ”troubled” is like claiming Will Smith is ”wealthy” or that Tommy Lee Jones has a face that ”resembles” exposed rock crag. It’s not wrong to say those things, yet they don’t capture just how disastrous, how filthy rich and how wrinkly all of that stuff actually is.
Confused? Here’s a close approximation to try at home: First, write a script, but under no circumstances attempt to finish it. Then, grab a camera and start filming a movie. Spend a lot of money. Keep spending it. Don’t stop until you’ve blown through more than a quarter-trillion dollars. Oh, and somewhere down the line, don’t forget to figure out the rest of that script.
Men in Black III: Tommy Lee Jones
As terrible Hollywood ideas go, in other words, Men in Black III is one for the ages. Even if it didn’t seem doomed from the start, it didn’t take long for the wheels to come off. When Sony Pictures shut down production for three months, writer after writer was scrambling to accomplish three tasks: appease the notoriously overbearing Will Smith, develop a narrative continuity that addresses and legitimizes time travel as a plot device, and recapture the spectacle and wit that made the original work so well.
Well, that army of scribes, led by Etan Cohen, didn’t completely fail. Smith looks happy to be back in black.
Men in Black III opens, as many action sequels do, with a new baddie. This one is named Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) and from the looks of him, he’s the bone-spitting demonspawn of a Hell’s Angel and “Macho Man” Randy Savage. (Meaning, he has a beard and he scowls a lot.) With the help of a Pussycat Doll (seriously, it’s Nicole Scherzinger playing an unnamed Nicole Scherzinger), the one-armed meanie breaks out of a moon prison, then makes a beeline for Earth to kill K (Tommy Lee Jones), the guy who maimed him and put him away 40 years earlier. Rather than simply doing the deed, though, Boris time-travels to 1969 to prevent his loss of limb and subsequent imprisonment from ever happening. For some reason that involves chocolate milk and doesn’t make a lick of sense, J (Will Smith) is the only one to notice that ole stern-and-stoic is gone, so he too jumps back to save his partner.
Not that the story particularly matters, though. The reason why Men in Black III is tolerable – aside from Josh Brolin’s excellent, extended riff as a young K – is because it unabashedly falls into its old, successful rhythms. Context is its lazy saving grace, its express lane to mediocre entertainment. A handful of “whys” and “hows” are tossed in to move the tedious plot forward, of course, but this is little more than an occasionally charming, watered-down retread. Remember J’s loud-mouthed wit? It’s still there! Remember K’s uptight straight man? He’s still just like that! It’s hard to credit Men in Black III for trotting out an impersonation of a movie that came out 15 years ago, but let’s give it a tiny bit of praise: Johnny Knoxville, and every other part of that forgettable, piss-poor 2002 sequel, are nowhere to be found.
And that’s as far as it goes. The cynical humor that made Men in Black an heir to Ghostbusters is gone, replaced by a bland variety of the casual jokes that sprinkle every summer blockbuster. Each set-up and punch line is pared down to a formula, repeated ad nauseam: Something weird or threatening happens on screen, and then the camera cuts to Smith’s toothy reaction. Even Clement, whose hilarious work on Flight of the Conchords speaks for itself, doesn’t get a rise out of his off-key, growling Boris. What happened to the writing that informed Vincent D’Onofrio’s weird, lumbering Edgar? What happened to the outrageous, campy tone that pervaded that first movie?
I guess this is just what happens to uninspired sequels. They aim to capture the magic of the original, but rarely pull it off without aping it. Instead of a new story, they’re stuck trying to riff on something they may not even be able to recreate. And audiences are left with the likes Men in Black III, a movie that’s little more than a concept and some good-looking suits.