A film review by Craig J. Koban June 1, 2012
MEN IN BLACK III
2011, PG-13, 106 mins.
2011, PG-13, 106 mins.
Agent J: Will Smith /
Agent K: Tommy Lee Jones /
Young Agent K: Josh Brolin /
Boris the Animal: Jemaine Clement /
Agent O: Emma Thompson /
Griffin: Michael Stuhlbarg /
Young Agent O: Alice Eve /
Agent X: David Rasche
have very fond memories of 1997’s sci-fi comedy MEN IN BLACK, which
introduced us a top secret governmental organization that had agents with
letters for names (so, there will only ever be just 26 agents, rights?) that wore
suits that made them look like Blues Brothers understudies that, in turn,
used shiny metallic neuralizers that wiped out peoples’ memories after
having close encounters that were most definitely of the third kind.
The film had an exemplary balance of comic absurdity and
human-versus-alien action. It’s 2002 sequel, on the other hand, was a wholeheartedly
goes without saying that the third film in the MEN IN BLACK trilogy –
released a decade after the wrongheaded and bloated second installment and
a very long 15 years after the first one – certainly has its work cut
out for it. It thanklessly brings back all of the players from the
previous entries (stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones and director Barry
Sonnenfeld, making his own return to movies after a six year hiatus), but
perhaps has the easy task of not succumbing to the mediocrity of the
second film. What MEN IN
BLACK III does – and does with reasonably proficiency and care – is to
recapture the whimsical and spontaneously daffy spirit of the original
film while, at the same time, carving out a novel and revitalizing
storyline for Agents K and J to occupy.
It may not be a ringing endorsement for MEN IN BLACK III to call it a
marked improvement from its predecessor, but this better-late-than-never
threequel definitely exceeded my own low expectations.
film begins with a daring and exciting lunar jailbreak for K’s (the
unflappable Tommy Lee Jones) nefarious arch alien nemesis, Boris the Animal
(played with great reptilian fervor by Jemaine Clement), who certainly
takes great umbrage to being called an animal.
Yet, the moniker is fitting, seeing as he can disgustingly shoot
out large spikes from the palms of his hands (if anything, he is a vastly
more significant and credible threat than Lara Flynn Boyle’s E.T.
villain from MEN IN BLACK II). He
wishes to return to Earth and seek revenge on K, largely because K shot off one of his
creepy monster may be a nutbar, but he has motive and wounds, both literally and emotional.
When his initial assassination attempt is foiled, Boris decides to take more dastardly innovative steps to rid the world of K; he time travels back to 1969 where he will help a younger version of himself kill K on July 16 of that year, the same day that, yup, the first Apollo manned Moon landing was set to take off from Cape Canaveral. Agent J (Smith) comes into the MIB headquarters one day and begins to notice something really odd: Agent K has not only disappeared, but no one around J seems to acknowledge K as a present day agent, almost as if he has never existed. Completely befuddled, J consults with the new MIB head leader O (a game and spry Emma Thompson) who seems rather perplexed herself by J’s incessant demands to locate his partner. She matter-of-factly tells him that K died in July of 1969.
some very peculiar reason, J seems to remember the elder K as his
recruiter and as his partner since he came to MIB, but everyone else at
MIB only remembers the late 20’s K dying 40-plus years ago (the reason
J’s memories of an older K are still intact are explained by some scientific
mumbo-jumbo explanations from O, and his recent predilection to drinking
massive amounts of a particular dairy beverage, which makes him immune to
temporal time line tampering).
Coming to the shocking revelation that K has been wiped out of
his current existence because he was killed in the past by Boris, J
decides to time travel back to the past just before K’s death, where he
meets up with the young K (Josh Brolin) and has the dubious task of
telling him that he’s from the future and has been sent to the past to
team up with him to defeat both Borises and ensure that K lives on into
the present. Upon hearing
that lengthy and wacky explanation from J, Brolin’s K deadpans a knee-slappingly
stoic, “All right.”
time travel to reset a well established film continuity is hardly that
ingenious (BACK TO THE FUTURE II did it decades ago, ditto for the recent STAR TREK reboot, as have countless other films in one form or
another), not to mention that whisking J back to the hippie-centric and
flower-powered era of the 60’s and making him a fish-out-of water
agent is not
all that fresh either (the film plays like an inverse AUSTIN POWERS).
There is a danger in MEN IN BLACK 3 of using time travel that generates all sorts of paradoxes with the established story canon, but
like most previous films regarding temporal shifting of characters, you
can either just have fun and go with it and accept its preposterousness or
meticulously pick apart its logical loopholes.
IN BLACK 3 chooses the latter...mostly. It has less interest for meticulously and cohesively laying out
all of the head-scratching ramifications of its time traveling characters
and simply just uses time travel as a plot device for the sake of some well
played social-cultural satire. Smith’s
J in particular has a unique set of challenges going back in time,
especially since he's an
African American and is reminded before trekking 43 years into the
past that the 60’s were “not the best time" for his people.
This sets up some inspired comic set pieces, as the frustrated J
has to fend off the racial prejudices of the age.
He’s pulled over at one point by some bigoted cops, simply because
they see a well-dressed black man in a nice convertible as a sign that the
vehicle has been stolen. J
neuralizes the prejudicial boys in blue to get out of the thorny
predicament, even though the hilarious irony is the fact that he did steal
some other period specific jabs at celebrities (Andy Warhol – played by
SNL’s very funny Bill Hader – is actually a secret MIB operative…who
would have thought!?), but the real pleasure of the film’s time travel
component is to see Tommy Lee Jones’ K portrayed as a younger, less hardened,
more emotionally open, but still no-nonsense alien seeker.
What’s perhaps most amusing about Brolin’s coup de grace
casting here is that he’s such a meticulous dead ringer as a younger
Jones, right down to his mannered inflections, his underplayed
impassiveness, and his imperturbable, stone cold façade. It’s
kind of an audacious move to take the fan favorite Jones out of this film
for about two-thirds of its running time and have his character portrayed
by a different actor altogether that mimics him to perfection.
It’s the rejuvenating jump-start that this floundering series
desperately needed, not to mention that it gives Agent K a new depth and
dimension as a character that was perhaps not apparent in previous MIB
entries. This is especially true during a virtuoso and exhilarating
– if not somewhat convoluted - climax set at Apollo 11’s launch site
that culminates with an ending that layers on some unexpected emotional
complexity to J and K’s whole personal and working relationship.
MEN IN BLACK III looks sensational as well; Bill Pope’s cinematography is crisp and vibrant, Bo Welch’s inspired art direction captures the sheer cosmic foolishness of this film world, and legendary makeup guru Rick Baker is like a kid in a candy store that always manages to find inspired ways to make perfunctory aliens look cleverly new again. Not all of MEN IN BLACK III works successfully, though: Will’s Smith still has star power and charm and his camera mugging mischief and verbal zingers were funny 15 years ago, but his schtick seem more forced and exhausted than ever. The film’s 3D upconvert – albeit not an eye-gouging and migraine inducing distraction – offers very little outside of an emptier pocket for viewers after having endured it. Yet, for all of the reported production woes this sequel went through (shooting began without a script, there were ample filming delays, and its ballooning budget soared past $200 million), MEN IN BLACK III works as a fitting return to form for the series that retools it just enough without bastardizing what we came to love about the introductory episode.
And if the Oscars gave out awards for spot-on impersonations, Brolin would win with top honors; he’s so crazy good in the film that he single-handedly hijacks it away from Jones and Smith, which is no easy task.