A film review by Craig J. Koban June 1, 2012

MEN IN BLACK III jjj
 

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

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld / Written by Etan Cohen

SCREENED IN
3D

I 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 forgettable affair.   

It 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.   

The 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 arms decades ago.  This 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.

Wait…what!?   

 

 

For 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.” 

Using 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.   

MEN 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 the car. 

There’s 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.

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