Will Smith Reprises His Role as Agent J in the Unasked-For Three-quel to "Men in Black"

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted May. 22, 2012

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Special K: Josh Brolin (left) as the a young agent is eerily awesome. Will Smith is, well, there.

Grade: D+

A decade-late three-quel anticipated by nobody, this lumbering $215 million behemoth finally stumbles into theaters—punch-drunk, top-heavy, and sweating so hard it’s all but barren of wit.

I doubt many would make a case for 1997’s Men in Black as a great picture of our time, but I seem to recall it being comparatively light on its feet, and smart enough to get in and out at around 90 minutes. Cleverly cashing in on the rapport between Will Smith’s overly ingratiating schtick and Tommy Lee Jones’ deadpan belligerence, it was the kind of picture you watched once, and enjoyed mainly because it didn’t insult your intelligence and the movie theater had air conditioning.

The gimmick, adapted from an old, out-of-print comic book by Lowell Cunningham, found these two mismatched partners working to keep tabs on a flood of intergalactic illegal immigrants swarming their way around New York City with a lot of Rick Baker makeup effects and moderately amusing bulging eyeballs and lizard tails. Cute idea, seeing N.Y.C. as the ultimate cosmic melting pot, and as far as such things go it was fine, I guess. (Again, I haven’t seen it since 1997, when Batman and Robin was playing across the multiplex hall and everything else looked wonderful in comparison.)

So why Men in Black III, and why now? The first bloated, instantly forgettable sequel earned few fans a decade ago, and the God’s honest truth is that I had to go look up my old review just to remember what it was about.

But as Will Smith continues his sad journey from “promising young movie star” to “CEO Of Smith Family Dynasty Entertainment Properties,” such tried and true commodities are apparently inevitable, no matter how tardy. He now spends his days fashioning his children into box-office juggernauts, turning down risky projects. Despite his maddeningly ubiquitous celebrity, Will Smith hasn’t appeared in a movie in a full four years. Men in Black III must have seemed like a sure thing on paper. It started shooting without a screenplay in September 2010. And despite many stops, starts and gossip items, we’re finally seeing the result.

Cannily accounting for the monumental indifference of his co-star, Tommy Lee Jones, Smith himself reportedly came up with the idea for this installment. After an outbreak at the lunar prison holding facility, Jones’ Agent K is murdered by some sort of slobbering reptile creature played to little comic effect by Fight of the Conchord’s Jermaine Clement, in a role Sacha Baron Cohen turned down. (Yeah, the part is so awful somebody actually chose to go make The Dictator instead.) Only catch is, this particular rascal can time-travel, so Jones was actually murdered in 1969, forever altering the future.

Forget for a moment that Agent K’s premature death would result in Will Smith never becoming an agent in the first place, because Men in Black III shrugs off such paradoxes with the same casual nonchalance with which it disposes of characters like Rip Torn’s Agent Zed, here granted a dry-eyed funeral shortly after the opening credits.

Because this is a summer blockbuster in our day and age, Smith’s Agent J is now saddled with a ton of daddy issues that never appeared before in the series, lamenting his absent father with maudlin qualities odd for such slight comedy.

Amusingly enough, Tommy Lee Jones could care less. He’s barely in the picture. Shot mostly from behind, so I assume his stand-in could take over the bulk of Agent K’s onscreen activity, this gruff national treasure burps a couple of priceless one-liners and politely sneaks out of camera range to go play golf or something.

Which leaves Will Smith floundering around 1969, having mysteriously discovered a way to time-travel himself in order to prevent his partner’s murder. The movie tantalizingly teases a road not taken when someone casually mentions, “this wasn’t exactly a good time for your people.”

Are we exploring social issues? No, forget it. We’re instead stuck with a slog of awfully dated special effects and inaccurate period gags.

There’s an eerily awesome performance by Josh Brolin as the young Agent K, aping his No Country for Old Men co-star Tommy Lee’s testy bleats, complete with prosthetic ears. A Serious Man’s Michael Stuhlbarg tags along as some sort of alien who claims to be able to see all possible futures, but his main job is to talk our characters out of making logical decisions because the army of seven uncredited screenwriters can’t otherwise unpaint the corners they’re stuck in.

By the end I almost felt bad for Smith, who invests so many dewy-eyed close-ups into the misty-eyed third act, I presume none of the yes-men in his entourage stopped and did enough math to point out that all these sappy, late-game twists would make his character at least 50 years old.

Men in Black III
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Starring: Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin

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