We review MEN IN BLACK 3 – A mix of good and bad, this threequel is certainly enjoyable but not great

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10 Years is a long time. Most things, whether they be people or ideas, will lose their shine after sitting on the shelf for a decade. Hell, some don’t just lose their shine, they sprout a carpet of some unknown grey-green stuff and give you an acute bout of emphysema just by being in it’s proximity. 2002’s Men in Black 2 somehow pulled off that putrefaction process in a mere 5 years.

So to say that I was looking forward to another sequel, 14 years after the original highly enjoyable film, would not exactly be truthful. The reports of the actors and writers literally making up the story on set as they were going along, or that god-awful new theme song by Pitbull that’s currently polluting eardrums everywhere, certainly didn’t help matters much.

So are Agent J and K past their sell by date already? Well, surprisingly no, not quite yet. But *sniff sniff* is it just me or is something starting to smell unpleasant around here?

In this third obsidian-attired adventure, we find Will Smith’s wisecracking Agent J needing to get his Marty McFly on to prevent escaped villain Boris the Animal (played like Tim Curry on PCP by Flight of the Conchords‘ Jermaine Clement) from exacting his revenge on the craggy-visaged Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), who not only eradicated Boris’ entire race when they tried to invade Earth 43 years earlier but shot off his arm and locked him away on the moon. Clearly, Boris has some anger issues and he has a time-travelling doohickey and some plans on rewriting the time-line with K’s premature death to help him work through it. Now it’s up to J to get his own time-travelling thingamabob, travel back to 1969, eat some pie, and also save the 29 year old version version of his partner from imminent death.

And it’s that young agent K that is really the most memorable aspect of the movie. Josh Brolin (who happens to be in his 40’s and looks it, much to Agent J’s amusement) does an absolutely flawless impersonation of the older Tommy Lee Jones. He supposedly locked himself in a Mexican motel for 6 weeks, doing nothing but studying footage of Jones to perfect his speech mannerisms and personality quirks, and it definitely paid off. Every time you hear K calling J “slick” or “sport”, you nearly do a double take when you realize that it’s not Jones. I’d even go as far as to say that his performance alone is worth the price of admission.

This is in contrast to Jones as the older K, who just seems to be tired of this whole business. He seems to be unwillingly dragging himself from scene to scene, barely able to wait to return to his retirement village of choice, so that Brolin can pick up from where Jones left off with Smith back in 1997. And unfortunately this hampers the usually reliable Smith as well, as without that usual report, the first act of the film just feels pedestrian and lifeless. This isn’t helped by early action sequences that just see J and K just rehash scenarios from the first two films, interspersed with “jokes” that are about as funny as having your teeth cleaned at the dentist. It’s only once Smith takes that leap off the Chrysler building 20 minutes in, and lands smirk-first in some vintage, humourous Will Smith dialogue that Etan (Tropic Thunder) Cohen’s script really starts to come alive. Soon you’re back on that all-too familiar (despite the passage of time) rollercoaster ride of quirky wide-screen action and side-splitting laughs.

Unfortunately, just as the script gains some excitement it also loses quite a bit of logic, especially with the time travel storytelling device which gets used (pardon the pun) willy-nilly, confusing and contradictory narrative be damned. One particularly enigmatic chronologically-themed mystery of the film (why J is the only person in the rewritten timeline that can remember K) is given one of the laziest and most incoherent explanations I’ve seen since… well, the other lazy explanation given just 30 minutes before that for why the 1969 Apollo space launch had to be used as a plot device. (Really, the Men In Black, the organization that’s responsible for policing extraterrestrial activity, the one that has aliens from nearly every galaxy drinking coffee in it’s lounge, doesn’t have access to a spaceship of their own?)

And while the final action sequence is certainly filled with the expected big budget thrills and laughs, the film also adds in a melancholic twist, that while touching and heartfelt and probably the best character building that the series has done thus far, also seems a bit out of place in the generally light-hearted romp.

The other surprise comes courtesy of Michael Stuhlbarg, who may be more well known as the calculating Arnold Rothstein in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. Here he turns in a charmingly understated performance as impish-faced Griffin, a 5th dimensional alien (he can view all timelines simultaneously) who instantly becomes the heart of the film from the second he steps on-screen. Yeah, OK, so he is a walking deus ex machina, but you’d have to have a piece of 3 day old french loaf for a heart, to not warm to his childlike sense of wonder.

As usual, director Barry Sonnenfeld makes sure that the technical aspects shine though, with sharp visual effects and a true to form representation of 1960’s America. Legendary make-up artist Rick Baker’s amazing creature designs is once again also a huge highlight, just as it’s always been in the series, particularly the design on the villainous Boris. It’s one that, while not as instantly eye-catching as Vincent D’Onofrio’s Edgar/Roach from the first film, definitely grew on me as more was revealed.

However, while the character physically lives up to it’s beastly moniker, as Clement growls his way through the film, chewing up every line of dialogue before spitting it out with a snarl, he is simply not given enough scripted material to truly reach iconic villain status, which is a definite missed opportunity given the New Zealander’s quirky comedic skills.

But that’s really the story of this film, truth be told. It’s a movie that should not have worked, and then somehow, against all odds, began to resemble something that could prove the law of diminishing sequels wrong. And then suddenly didn’t, as it fell short of the mark, tripping over it’s own feet as a result of lazy writing and some missed opportunities.

While it’s certainly a vast improvement on the abysmal 2nd film (something I wish I could neuralise out of my brain), it still has a ways to go to capture the irreverent magic of the original.

Last Updated: May 30, 2012

Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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