Where has Will Smith been? Despite a four-year absence from film that has happily ended with the recent release of “Men in Black III,” it’s a question no one has been asking.
By Noah Gittell
Where has Will Smith been? Despite a four-year absence from film that has happily ended with the recent release of “Men in Black III,” it’s a question no one has been asking. Smith is clearly a movie star; the box-office numbers prove it, and everyone likes him. But he inspires no rabid devotion in his fans, and when he does go four years without making a film, no one seems to notice. No one bemoans the lack of Will Smith.
Likewise, no one was clamoring for a third “Men in Black,” especially ten years after the poor box-office performance of “Men in Black II.” But in many ways, Smith’s return to the big screen mirrors the franchise’s return: no one was asking for it, but we should all be glad it happened.
Smith has made a dozen successful films, but “Men in Black” has always been the franchise that most suited his talents. As the breezily irreverent Agent J, he glides through tense situations and action sequences with humor, confidence, and athleticism. The latest finds him doing what he does best: killing aliens, protecting the Earth, and, of course, erasing the memories of human bystanders who witness the MIB in action.
The twist this time comes when an alien named Boris (Jemaine Clement) time travels back to 1969 to kill a young Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones). J wakes up one morning in an alternate reality in which his partner K died as a young agent, so he time-jumps back to 1969 to save him and kill Boris. Oh, and he is supposed to save the world by putting some kind of exploding force field device on the Apollo 11 shuttle.
Although each film centers on a similar save-the-world plot, the stakes somehow feel low. “Men in Black” has always coasted on the charisma and chemistry of its stars, humor, and special effects. But this latest and, dare I say, best installment brings something new to the table: a bigger and more prominent heart.
Josh Brolin plays Agent K in 1969, and he seems to be having fun mimicking Tommy Lee Jones’s Texas twang and standoffish disposition. Still, the script gives him much more to do than impersonate. In fact, the filmmakers sneak in a dramatically powerful sub-plot concerning K’s character. We see a significant difference between Agent K in 1969 and in modern day. Modern-day K is gruff and unemotional. Young K is friendly and even romantic. Our emotional engagement hinges on the answer to a question directly asked several times in the film: what happened to young K to turn him into the emotionally-distant shadow of a human being that we know? This mystery is resolved in the film’s final, tender moments, as we learn more about both characters than we ever expected to.
The surprising depth of the story is a testament to the work of screenwriter Etan Cohen (“Tropic Thunder”). A newcomer to the franchise, Cohen has crafted a tight, winning story that both revives and deconstructs all of the elements we expect in a MIB movie.
For example, series newcomer Michael Stuhlbarg (“A Serious Man”) gives an impressive supporting performance as Griffin, an alien who can see the future and becomes almost a third member of the team. Griffin is written as sort of a wise sage, but Stuhlbarg gives him a sweet, helpless quality that does not serve mere comedy or action but instead makes a beeline for our hearts. His performance is indicative of the film’s strengths.
We have always liked these characters, but by bringing emotionality to the forefront, “MIB 3” makes us care about them in a deeper way. It is a bold and wise choice for a franchise that could easily have coasted on its formula.
And lest we forget the film’s real star, it is good to see Will Smith back in form. A true movie star, he carries the film, as he has before, with grace and humor. “Men in Black” may be the franchise most suited to his particular talents, but in this latest installment, the filmmakers were wise to reach beyond the limits of his persona. In doing so, they have crafted a film that moves us in ways we had no reason to expect.
My Rating: See it in the theater