You were the film no one asked for. No one seemed to want you. Coming so long after your lackluster second installment, what could really be expected of you? More tired retreads of similar plot lines, more retconning of foregone story arcs, more attempts at shock that fall flat?
Perhaps that seems like an overly harsh assessment of your possibilities, but given the creative bankruptcy of Hollywood recently, the swell of sequels, and the continuing return of long past-due properties, I couldn’t help but feel that way. Maybe that was unfair of me, maybe it was unprofessional, but as with all art, emotion and expectation do play a role.
Luckily for me, my worst expectations did not come to fruition. In fact, while not better than the first, you are a marked improvement over the second and prove that this franchise could be a viable series so long as the writers don’t forget that the chief draw is the relationship between the two leads, Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones/Josh Brolin).
The main problem I had with the second film in your series was that it recycled the exact same plot as the first film, and undid any development of character between the two leads. It basically functioned as a quasi-remake, or hard reset. You sidestep this pothole in narrative cohesion by highlighting the reason we should want these two characters together in the first place, and making sure that their relationship functions as the main plot device. J and K are still comically mismatched, but you take the time to build a story around the genesis of this divide, and while it also serves as an awkward retroactive change-up of their relationship, you make it work.
J must go back in time to save K from an assassin, while at the same time helping his partner to save the world in both the past and the present. There is some (slight) clever fun to be had with the transplanting of a modern black man into the 60s, on top of showcasing the MIB in their old form. Of course time travel films come standard with warnings of paradoxes and other time-related issues, but you find a clever way to circumvent these ideas in the form of an alien being who can see all possible realities.
Sure, some of the shine is still off; after all, how can the wit and humor of the first film ever really be matched? After the first time we heard a dog talk or heard mention of Elvis being an alien, we as an audience grew to expect the unexpected. We’ll never be caught off our toes again, and you rarely attempt to really knock us off guard. Oddly, though, this works in your favor. Sure, you work in some “gotcha” moments, but you don’t hang your hat on them, and that is a smart move.
But it is Will Smith’s Agent J that makes your story work. J has always been the emotional center of your films, and while he is a little more wise here, his heart-on-his-sleeve nature is undiminished. He still wants to understand his partner, and has an obvious affection for him. Jones plays the role of the reluctant father figure well, and Brolin especially does an excellent job of capturing the idea of K before he turned into the curmudgeon we have known over two films.
As is the case with many of the films I have seen lately, I don’t know that I would find myself encouraging people opposed to seeing you to think otherwise. I can say, though, that people only swayed from checking you out on the fear that you will be yet another diminishing return should think twice. You’re not quite out of this world, but you’re still fun.
Vaguely, pleasantly surprised,
Brian J. Roan