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Men in Black III

I’ve already said my piece about Men in Black, its place in my childhood, and how its latest sequel looked like yet another failed attempt to kickstart the franchise. Production started without a finished script, the trailers all looked awful, and — lest we forget — this movie comes a decade and a half after the first and only good movie in the series. So imagine my shock to see the reviews coming out, claiming that despite all appearances, this movie didn’t actually suck.

My expectations slightly raised, I did finally decide to give the picture a chance. Not in 3D, though — I wasn’t quite willing to give the movie that much benefit of the doubt. Anyway, I can now confirm that indeed, Men in Black III doesn’t completely suck. But man, does this movie have problems.

Before I begin the review proper, let’s get something straight about Tommy Lee Jones’ character: K was never designed to last for longer than one movie. He got a perfectly happy ending at the denouement of the first film, and he spent the entire narrative developing to that point. Remember, a huge reason why he recruited J and took him bug-hunting was so that K could train his replacement. It was a wonderful character arc. But then the PTB demanded a sequel. At that point, the filmmakers could either have written K out of the franchise and abandoned a huge part of the first film’s success, or they could have rendered K’s elegant character arc null and void to put him back in black. So basically, they (and the fans) were screwed no matter what they did.

Ultimately, the filmmakers brought back K for the second film, structuring the whole piss-poor narrative around getting K back in action. Ten years later, we have a movie in which K is the crux of the entire plot from start to finish. J might be the protagonist, but his sole purpose in the movie is to make sure that K takes part in some history-changing event and lives to tell about it. What I’m trying to say is that the franchise suffers terribly because it has to take increasingly drastic measures to justify the presence of a main character who got written out of the series at the end of the first installment. And really, the effort just isn’t worth it anymore.

The whole point of bringing Tommy Lee Jones back for the sequels was so he and Will Smith could continue the blockbuster repartee between their characters. And I’ll tell you, that chemistry is totally gone.

First of all, Smith goes through the whole movie playing the same character that he did back in the ’90s. I just wanted someone to pull him aside and say “Will, it’s 2012. And you’re 44 years old. Grow up.” Conversely, Jones didn’t act nearly young enough. I remember how Jones was actually a participant in all the witty banter back then, making jokes at Smith’s expense with a sandpaper sense of humor. But watching Jones in this film, it was so patently obvious that he really didn’t want to be there. He didn’t have many lines, and what dialogue he did have was delivered with a total lack of energy and enthusiasm. Seriously, Jones went through the whole movie looking like he just wanted a paycheck and a nap.

So basically, Smith and Jones had a working relationship in which Smith had to provide nearly all of the jokes, lines, and vitality. I realize that the emotional distance between J and K is a thematic cornerstone of the film, but it’s simply painful to watch. And anyway, J and K first met 14 years ago. It’s been ten years since K rejoined MIB. Are we really supposed to believe that these two gentlemen have only drifted further apart after working together for so long?

With all of that said, being a nonentity does come with the job. In the first movie, Zed gave a huge monologue to J, explaining “You don’t exist; you were never even born. Anonymity is your name. Silence your native tongue.” So technically, by keeping himself emotionally closed off and refusing to give details about his past, K is just being an ideal MIB agent. I kept expecting this point to come up — during Zed’s funeral, in fact — but the movie never went there.

However, that scene did give Emma Thompson a chance to make a total idiot of herself. She plays Agent O (Zed’s replacement), who later gets a few scenes to talk entirely in exposition. Will Arnett and Nicole Scherzinger are also given unfunny cameos. Really, there isn’t much of anything set in the modern day that works in this movie. But then J goes back to 1969 at the end of the first act, and that’s when things really start to get fun.

At this point, Josh Brolin steps in to play a younger K. It shouldn’t be news at this point that Brolin is a phenomenal actor — it’s not easy to play the title role in a film like Jonah Hex and walk away completely unscathed (just ask Halle Berry). But more than that, Brolin looks like he’s having a great deal of fun in the role. He succeeds in bringing the straight-faced and world-weary kind of humor that we knew and loved from K in the first film. As such, he and Smith somehow manage to reach the level of chemistry that Smith and Jones achieved in the first film, though their relationship is visibly different.

In MIB, J was the smart-ass newcomer who had to repeatedly be put in his place by K. That’s not to say that he was incompetent or unintelligent — far from it — he simply needed constant reminding that his NYPD street skills “mean precisely dick.” In MIB3, J is a senior agent with a decade and a half of experience under his belt. Moreover, he’s the guy with (limited) knowledge from the future. He thinks he knows what’s going on — and he does, to a degree — yet he’s out of place in 1969, and young K is still twice the agent that J is. That said, J is still a much stronger MIB agent than he was before, and K has a date with destiny that he has to work toward.

To sum up, Smith and Brolin manage to recapture the basic thrust of the J/K rapport from the first movie, but without sacrificing character development. Genius, really.

Something else that this movie has going for it is Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays a character named Griffin. I don’t dare go into detail about his character, except that Stuhlbarg plays the character with an autistic sort of charm that’s sweet, sympathetic, and amusing all at once. Moreover, the human race’s pathetically limited knowledge of the grander universe is an indispensable theme of the franchise, and Griffin provides a way to explore the issue from a fresh angle.

Then there’s the matter of our villain, Boris the Animal. On paper, the guy is totally boring and one-dimensional. His dialogue is wholly uninteresting, save for a couple of lame attempts at catchphrases. He doesn’t have any personality or motivation, save only to settle his grudge with K and to take over the world. We do hear that Boris is the last of his race and that his temporal meddling evidently saves his species from extinction, yet the film refuses to address this matter as a source of motivation or pathos. Talk about a hugely wasted opportunity.

But then Jermaine Clement — half of Flight of the Conchords — agreed to play Boris. And somewhere, someone in casting earned a big fat pay raise.

Even if the character isn’t interesting, Clement was always a joy to watch in this role. Clement plays Boris as a legitimate threat, and he buried himself in the role to an incredible degree. If he couldn’t make the character funny or nuanced, he could at least make the villain over-the-top and extremely dangerous. Granted, there are times when I thought he was merely doing a very good Tim Curry impression, but that’s hardly a bad thing in this case. I can only imagine what Clement might have done with a villainous role that actually gave him something humorous to work with. It’s something that I hope I get to see sometime.

On the polar opposite end of the spectrum sits Alice Eve. She contributes absolutely nothing in the way of humor, character development, or plot relevance. There are a few hints of romance between K and O (Did I mention that Eve is supposed to be playing a young Emma Thompson? Yeah, right.), but it never goes anywhere. I suspected as much after The Raven, but now I’m confident that Eve is nothing more than the latest flash-in-the-pan pretty face. She’s set to play an undisclosed role in the upcoming Star Trek movie, and I hope for her sake that J.J. Abrams sees something in her that I’m missing.

One final word on the cast: Bill Hader appears in the movie as Andy Warhol. Don’t get too excited if you’re a fan of his, since Hader only gets one scene. It’s funny enough, though.

Hopefully, I’ve gotten the point across that the script for this movie is very flawed, but that isn’t even getting started on all the plot holes. A huge source of them — as you may have guessed — is the time travel element, which inherently raises a ton of problems with any narrative. Why do the characters only go back a short time before the target event? What’s to stop them from doing the whole thing over if they fail? Why does J remember K’s existence if no one else does? The list goes on in that vein. Some of these questions are never raised at all, others are asked only to be denied answers. I’m not sure which is worse.

Another problem with the film is in regards to MIB’s covert nature. Nobody is supposed to know that they exist. So when two MIB agents take huge freaking jetpacks to travel down the eastern seaboard so they can interfere with an event that’s being televised worldwide (I won’t spoil which one, but you can probably guess), I just have to ask “What the fuck?!”

In a similar vein, we have the monocycle (seen here), which I have so many problems with. For one thing, there’s absolutely no way one of those things — much less two of them — could travel through New York City traffic without attracting some degree of attention. Secondly, its inclusion in the movie was so totally unnecessary that it was obviously done to move some toys (which reminds me, there’s some egregious product placement in the movie as well). Thirdly, it doesn’t mesh at all with the movie’s presentation of ’60s technology.

The differences between past and present MIB tech is a running gag throughout the movie. Their wireless communications systems are laughably huge, and a neuralyzer the size of a car gets its own setpiece. Of course, that sequence doesn’t make a whole lot of sense due to the introduction of a portable model (powered by an unreliable battery pack), but I’m getting off the point. The point is that a vehicle as fast and sleek as the monocycle sticks out like a sore thumb. Anything that would look so cutting edge by modern standards has no place in the company of technology so huge and clunky.

Anyway, there is one other facet of the movie that benefits beautifully from its period setting: The makeup and effects. Rick Baker turns in superlative work across the board in both time periods, but the aliens of the 1960s look like something that stepped out of a mid-century sci-fi film. That was a genius move. I’ll grant that it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, since it implies that aliens drastically changed in appearance at some point in the intervening decades. Still, the geek in me is amused by the notion that sci-fi movies of the time — and it was a hugely influential time in science fiction, make no mistake — were influenced by actual aliens to such a degree.

Visually, I don’t regret seeing the film in 2D at all. It only made all the obvious 3D moments that much less annoying. As for the action scenes… they’re okay. Nothing overly terrible, but I’ve already seen far better action in other movies this year. I’ll at least grant that there’s a good variety to the action sequences. The filmmakers didn’t repeat themselves, which I suppose is worth something.

Finally, I’ve got to talk about the ending. Taking the story back in time was a golden opportunity to reshape the franchise and put it on course for some new, more easily maintained direction. Furthermore — as I’ve already stated — the segments in 1969 were so much fun in large part because the modern-day stuff sucked. Yet at the end of the movie, everything established in the past is essentially disposed of. The film ends with the status quo restored, which is exactly what this franchise (and Tommy Lee Jones) didn’t need.

As a stand-alone movie, Men in Black III was decent. There are a ton of plot holes and a lot of jokes don’t work, but the narrative was still clear enough and there are a few funny moments here and there. Additionally, Will Smith and Josh Brolin work wonderfully off each other, with their chemistry anchoring the film very nicely. Props are also due to Jermaine Clement and Michael Stuhlbarg, both of whom do a lot to keep the film entertaining. And of course, the makeup work from Rick Baker is worth the price of admission all its own. Basically, the film isn’t a masterpiece, but it could have (and probably should have) been a hell of a lot worse.

As an entry in the greater franchise, however, this movie really should be the last nail in the coffin. Will Smith is getting way too old to keep playing 30, Tommy Lee Jones is obviously past the point of caring, and the film ends without any huge change in their relationship to shake things up. At this point, the torch should be handed to some new leads (a new director might not hurt, either) or just die out.

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