“Who are you and what do you know from the future?” Asked to explain himself, Agent J (Will Smith) isn’t precisely at a loss for words. That would never happen, of course. But he does have to think for a minute, about how to explain how he’s come back to 1969, why he’s come to MIB headquarters, and how he knows the name of Agent K (young version played by Josh Brolin). That’s not to say that J does know too much of anything “from the future,” but K means to fix that in the way he knows best, which is to zap this pesky intruder with a neuralyzer the size of a Buick.
As J and K face off, the third Men in Black works too hard to recover the first film’s zippy strangeness and forget the second one’s general badness. Here again, J and the original, older K (Tommy Lee Jones) tend to be at odds, as in, their Odd Couple-ish partnership is premised on their differences in attitudes, expectations, even what you might call emotional stylings. As much as J is relentlessly expressive and self-consciously cute (and not a little anachronistic, reminding you that even in 1997, he seemed a bit ‘80s, and not a little Fresh-Princey), so K remains stone-faced, disinclined to share. The combination has apparently kept them quite joined at the hip at MIB, where they remain top agents assigned to keep order among the aliens who live on earth.
This third installment’s story begins with an alien not on earth, but rather incarcerated on the moon. Boris the Animal (Jermaine Clement) is ugly and toothy and missing an arm, owing to an encounter with K at Cape Canaveral back in 1969—as Apollo 11 was launched for the moon. Boris holds a grudge, and when he escapes his super-secure cell (following bloody mayhem, mostly rendered as splatters on the wall, observed by a duly impressed and buxom accomplice), he heads to earth to exact his revenge and save his arm—which would mean he wouldn’t need that revenge, in the new future he’d be creating (the movie doesn’t address such butterfly effecty possibilities, how one small change might wreak havoc on other events).
Boris’ plan is simple and fantastic: he gains access to a time travel device in order to go back to the moments before he lost his arm, so he can kill K. No one but J knows this happens when it does: K is simply gone, his apartment inhabited by a forlorn looking mother and her children, his existence a wistful memory for former paramour Agent O (Emma Thompson in the present, Alice Eve in the ‘60s) (no one mentions K’s wife, whose memory lured him away from MIB in the first movie). Conveniently, J is still an MIB agent (the movie doesn’t explain how that happens, as K recruits him long after 1969), and so, with O’s imprecisely sage advice, J devises his own plan, to go back in time to save the younger K, and also, by the way, to save the world from an attack by Boris’ dreadful race of interplanetary assassins.
Men in Black 3 spends most of its time after this set-up in 1969, which allows J to look even more out of place than he does in 2012, both the inspiration and butt of jokes about the late ‘60s (a time when the men in black’s skinny ties are, ironically, in fashion). This, J encounters a number of icons, mostly objects (old phones, old cars, Coney Island, even a couple of references to the fact that the decade was not “the best for your people,” as one helpful observer notes), and also Andy Warhol (Bill Hader), who makes a requisite comment about a “happening.”
The film doesn’t pretend to abide by classic science fiction’s time-traveling “rules” (for instance, Back to the Future‘s quaint notion that it’s bad for two versions of the same individual to inhabit the same space, to see each other: here two Borises are happy enough to scheme and commit crimes together). Instead, it skips about erratically, from place to place and also idea to idea.
In part, this is a function of the presence of a new alien, Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg), who can see multiple possible futures at any given moment. While he serves mainly here as the goofy sidekick, something like Frank the pug dog (voiced by Tim Blaney) whom J came to adore. Griffin wears a funky outfit, plaid and wooly, with a knit cap with earflaps and strings, and his eyes go wide when he begins to narrate the possible futures he’s seeing, what might be coming through a door or who might be at risk. Ever worried and frequently quaint, he’s both weird and wise, not to mention a survivor of a genocide wreaked by Boris the Animal’s buddies.
As he speaks, J and K are alternately alarmed and ready or unprepared and quite undone. The first time, Griffin’s bit is vaguely charming—and it does suggest some clever enough queries concerning the functions of time travel in movies, its contrivance, its nostalgia, its essential awkwardness. Soon, though, Griffin’s gift starts to seem haphazard, just a way to get to the big showdown at Cape Canaveral. And that’s too bad in more ways than one, as J and K are caught up in an overly sentimental and complex explanation for how they’ve been so fond of one another for so long, despite their stubborn differences.