There are movies that are way off. Movies so bad that they never had a shot. And then there are the movies that were almost there, that needed just another few passes on the script, some more time in the editing room and a few more reshoots. Men in Black 3 may be one of those movies.
Men in Black 3 isn’t bad. It has just enough of the elements from the first movie to remind you why the first Men in Black worked. But it doesn’t have enough them in the right proportions.
The Men in Black formula is simple enough. There’s the secret government agency with cool gadgets meets a multicultural New York where all the strangest people are actually from a galaxy far far away. There’s the buddy cop dynamic of Will Smith’s J and Tommy Lee Jones’ K that really makes the series work. And all of those things are there in Men in Black 3 but not in the right proportions.
Unlike Men in Black 2, Men in Black 3 has J and K together for the entire movie, though for most of it K is being played by Josh Brolin as K’s younger seventies self. And Brolin nails the Tommy Lee Jones imitation making him the best thing about the movie. It’s everything else that’s weak.
Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones both show up, but that’s about all they do. Tommy Lee Jones gives a distracted and feeble performance in the few parts of the movie that he’s in. Will Smith isn’t capable of being low wattage, but he seems equally distracted as if MIB 3 is something he has to get through before doing something else. The dynamic is there, but it’s fainter and feebler. It’s as if too many of their scenes were early takes, rather than the best takes.
Then there’s the showpiece part of Men in Black 3. The MIB movies have always had big fights and splashy effects. The first one did it on a 90 million dollar budget, though it was the nineties. MIB 2 had more forgettable action scenes on a 140 million dollar budget. But MIB 3 is the worst of them on a 225 million dollar production budget, which couldn’t have all gone to Will Smith.
The aliens, the gadgets and the battles using the gadgets against the aliens are a big part of the Men in Black movies. They’re a smaller part of Men in Black 3. There are fewer aliens and fewer gadgets. The villain isn’t a giant bug, he’s a biker with built in goggles who shoots spiders out of his palms and in most scenes the spiders just look like darts. And Boris the Animal, unlike the MIB and MIB 2 villains never feels alien.
After an early fight in Chinatown that’s spectacular and in line with the old MIB movies, Men in Black 3 doesn’t have much to offer. Boris’ breakout is a cheesy cliche. The time travel repairman appears to be completely human. The alien invasion looks cheap and there’s no sense of urgency. And once in the 70’s, Men in Black 3 confines itself to the usual tired cliches of time travel movies. Between the fight scene in Chinatown and a showdown at Cape Canaveral during the Apollo moon launch, there’s not much there except the only cool gadget in the movie, the Monocycle.
But despite all those problems, Men in Black 3 does have a good story. Griffin is a charming character, even if his fake spirituality becomes a bit much and the ending ties the whole series and the J and K dynamic together with a paternalistic bow. The Mets scene and the launch at Cape Canaveral occasionally ground MIB 3 in somewhat approaching relevance and human emotion. Unfortunately they’re the exception, not the norm.
Men in Black 3 starts out assuming that you have seen all the previous movies and don’t need the introductions, the scenes that make this environment cool and give it texture. It assumes that what we really want is to explore the relationship between K and J. But MIB 3 shouldn’t have tried to trade off one for the other. And that is its big mistake.
Clearly MIB 3 had its problems. The production was shut down for a while and the script had too many writers, but never gelled into a true final product. There aren’t enough of the cool elements that people expected from this movie, the pacing rarely feels right and everyone seems a little bit tired. And all that is a shame because Men in Black 3 does have potential, it has a few wonderful moments and enough good work to make you see what it might have been.
Most people went in to Men in Black 3 expecting lots of aliens and gadgets in a New York City where all the weird people are really aliens. Instead they got a large dose of nostalgia, for the old MIB movies, the seventies and for Tommy Lee Jones. They got a story that was less about aliens and more about Will Smith’s J finding his father.