Back (Again) in Black
A Film Review of Men in Black III
By: Lawrence Napoli
It’s been a long time since we’ve heard any word from Agents K and J (exactly 10 years to be precise), so it’s somewhat curious to see another installment to this franchise after so long especially when considering the advanced age of Tommy Lee Jones (65) and the ever-ripening status of Will Smith (43). That’s not to suggest that either of these actors cannot hack the action/sci-fi genre due to the implied physicality their roles would naturally demand, but a time travel story as a convenient means of easing the load on Mr. Jones is perhaps the least surprising plot device of the decade. Still, 10 years is a LONG time between sequels. The fact that MIB II fell off way short in terms of story and quality from its predecessor, I’m sure, had something to do with its hiatus. As for MIB III the somewhat interested viewer may ask “Why this?” “Why now?” I guess the only appropriate response is “Why not?” (or is it “Why ask why?)
Just about the entire gang is coming back for the same old MIB fun and games from executive producer Steven Spielberg, to director Barry Sonnenfeld, to Tommy Lee and of course “Big Willy Style.” The one noticeable absence is of Rip Torn who added a very unique blend of respectable demeanor and quirky comedy that came to be this franchise’s calling card. Thankfully, his character was not recast outright, but whose absence was explained away in the plot in a rather droll and uninspired fashion (oh, well). Another chink in the armor is exposed as new-to-the-franchise Etan Cohen penned a script that at best could be described as merely emulating the original and at worst as an unassuming adventure into the amazing. Lowell Cunningham (creator of the comic series for Malibu Comics) probably could have come up with something better. Using time travel as the major angle for this story would have been fine had the tone of the film escalated beyond the status of “been there, done that.” The characters may be different (Boris The Animal, Agent O, Griffin) and the faces have changed (Old/Young Agents K and O), but Will Smith is still getting taught lessons from everyone older than him (despite his tenure at MIB), Tommy Lee is still crotchety and evil aliens conquering the world/universe/multi-verse couldn’t have been displayed in a less threatening fashion. If you’ve seen one or both of the previous MIB films, it won’t be long before any of you recognize this entire plot as “old hat.” For those new to the franchise you may be asking why the explosions aren’t as big, the action isn’t as intense and the stakes aren’t as high as the standard sci-fi/action/adventure film these days (thank you Avengers). Perhaps what we need in all things fiction is less “backwards is forward” (the prequel-itis Hollywood has contracted) to reestablish forwards as forward.
The visual style of this film is a huge win. All of the production design elements that envisioned the MIB of the present and of the 60s were truly inspired as it not only seemed appropriate, but enhanced the comedic undertone of the adventure. Job well done, Bo Welch! The same can be said of the special effects by Cinovation Studios and visual effects by The Third Floor, Prime Focus VFX and several other contributing companies. Lasers are crisp, explosions are neat and aliens are slimy. Sure, it’s not Star Wars, but that level of plasticity isn’t required for this film to look effective.
Tommy Lee Jones is a great actor and although his performance as Agent K was fine for what it was (a reduced feature capacity), it was by no means as great as his initial work 15 years ago. [Side note: shame on the makeup people for making a 65 year old man look like he’s 85!] Tommy’s one liners didn’t have the energized ZING. His staccato attitude didn’t have that abruptness. And his presence didn’t illicit “the most feared human in the galaxy” as expressed by Frank the pug in MIB II. I couldn’t tell if he was mailing it in because I’ve never noticed that in any of his previous performances for any film, but he didn’t look physically well for the production and it had an impact on his performance.
Will Smith is still a solid Hollywood personality that can sell a film and do you know what makes his character work for any of these MIB movies? It’s the fact that it’s “the Fresh Prince” working for a secret government alien-control organization. Smith brings some manner of street savoir fare to handle situations that don’t really need it and he either eats crow or makes the bad guys eat it: either way, comedy ensues. The problem is Will Smith ain’t the Fresh Prince no more. He, like his character, is older now and trying to pull the same old gags in the same old way is almost as awkward as Courtney Cox trying to sell sexy. It would have been kind of neat to see Agent J as someone who has been picking up on the habits and mannerisms of his older, quick-puns-now ask questions never, partner. But alas, Agent J is immune to the effects of K, space and time as he’s apparently too cool to afford maturation.
I also enjoyed the performances from the cast. For instance, Bill Hader as Agent Andy Warhol was pretty friggin’ hilarious, but I’m sure anyone in the audience with a background in art history probably would not have appreciated his routine. Michael Stuhlbarg as Griffin blended a perfect mix of childish innocence and compassion with other worldly randomness that made me crack genuine smiles of amusement. Jemaine Clement was channeling too much Christian Bale as Batman in Boris the Animal’s voice, but produced a decent villain. As hot as Alice Eve is, her impact on the film is trivial as was Emma Thompson playing the same role as Agent O (the elder). Women didn’t have a strong showing in this film.
The real (and only) reason to see this film is for Josh Brolin’s performance as young Agent K. He embodies every element that Tommy Lee Jones made awesome in the original MIB. Everything from the mannerisms, to the stoic look, to the attitude is simply owned by Brolin. The performance is so good that it stops being about an impression of young Agent K and more about being a young Tommy Lee Jones. It’s the kind of uncanny connection that would have made a shared scene between their characters in No Country For Old Men simply unforgettable. I realize that Mr. Brolin would never get top billing over Jones and Smith, but his performance drives this film.
I can’t give this film an endorsement as a “must see” regardless of the fact there’s The Avengers and precious little else to check out at the movies at this instant (Snow White and the Huntsman may change that). MIB III is a fairly kid-friendly film that won’t put parents to sleep, but it would have been so much better had this production not catered to children all together. Short attention spans and those who only require modest amusement are all welcome here as it’s a nice movie, but doesn’t deliver the impact of a true blockbuster.