After a stunningly poor second outing, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones return for third go around and this time they actually capture most of the magic of the original, and even accomplish what their eponymous suits try to eliminate: give them real character.
For all the hints and vague gesturing toward prior and potential romances, MiB 1 and 2 never really dived deep into what made Agents K (Jones) and J (Smith) the sort of people they are today. MiB 3, with the benefit of a time travel plot, successfully gives the two black suited agents depth with motivations that aren’t strictly romantically inclined.
In short, a criminal from K’s past escapes prison and goes back in time to kill K before he was arrested. K, as a result, vanishes from the timeline and only J remembers the change. Thus J goes back in time to stop the murder and return the timeline to its original form. However, once he goes back in time (to 1969, naturally) he runs into the younger version of K (played with absolutely amazing success by Josh Brolin – who had previously earned my scorn in the soulless Jonah Hex film) and J gets to see a little bit about how his partner thinks.
I’ve talked before about how much I love time travel plots. They’re my favorite sci-fi tool for showing dramatic change and probably the most complex yet commonplace concept we ask audiences to internalize. There are a million ways to screw up a time travel story, but MiB 3 manages to find the right middle ground between rule mongering and respect for the audience’s emotions. We see the tech being used in tricky ways to get out of jams, but we also see a few cheats to allow proper dramatic scenes to take place.
The movie’s central tone is a rehash of MiB2’s theme, but this time executed more skillfully: the power of regret. K is shown suffering from regret for his whole life and then we are zapped back to a time before the event that causes the emotion. The movie inexorably inches towards that moment as both the audience and J holds their breath wondering what could be so bad that it would cause K so much suffering.
Surprisingly, when the moment does happen, it’s honest, and touching as opposed to exploitative. Brolin as K does an amazing job showing anguish slowly overtake K while he tries to keep a kind face to those around him. And its impact to J is just a meaningful, such that in the end, when J does return to the present, his very restrained acknowledgement of his new knowledge is embraced and gives satisfying closure.
It’s actually pretty interesting the trip we’ve taken to get here. MiB1, with its breezy script, made simple gestures regarding the nature of the universe and how significant (o r insignificant) we are in it. They were not horribly profound, but seemingly true. MiB3, however, turns that look inwards, and examines the small and subtle. The tiniest thing can change the course of a life, says this movie, and honestly, I believe it had the better point to make.