6 June 2012
Men in Black 3 Review
Men in Black has had something of a varied history - originally a comic book that was adapted into a screenplay that 'utterly stank', according to Tommy Lee Jones, then subsequently - and somehow - morphed into a rather successful, and actually genuinely excellent slice of sci-fi comedy that never outstayed its welcome. Followed up by a sequel that actually stank to high heaven, it's been dormant for the last ten years - seemingly only resurrected due to us living in the age of adding 'D' to the titles of second sequels, for what I can only surmise is aesthetic reasons.
And so Men in Black (in) 3(D) rolls up onto our screens, and in truth, it wasn't exactly the most tantalising prospect, given how very lacklustre the second film was. Barry Sonnenfield is a director whose movies have their quality dictated at the script level rather than the directorial level, and it's always clear that he started out his career as a cinematographer. His films have a joyous level of visual clarity - even that heinous Robin Williams vehicle (hah!), RV - but have recently, and without fail, been let down by the writers. See RV, Men in Black 2, Wild Wild West, and Big Trouble for what I mean.
So yes, hopes were not high taking my seat in front of MiB3, though thankfully I didn't have to suffer the 3D version of the movie.
Screenwriting duties here fall to Etan Cohen, of King of the Hill, Beavis and Butthead, and Idiocracy fame, and thankfully, the man has a decent science fiction head on him. The story hasn't exactly been wrestled away from Shakespeare, but it's actually surprisingly nuanced, bringing in a time-travelling element that doesn't suffer from the usual schizophrenic flitting between fixed and fluid interpretations of time travel - sticking with the Back to the Future 'timelines' execution rather doggedly.
The story goes that a villain known as Boris the Animal ("It's just Boris!", he rages) escapes incarceration on a prison on the Moon, with only one thing on his mind - killing the man who relinquished him of his arm, Agent K. Only he also plans to get his appendage back as well, and thus hatches a plot to travel back in time to the day that he lost it, then kill K before the de-limbing commences. Thankfully, Agent J cottons on early, and chases Boris back in time, only to discover that there are a fair few discrepancies in procedure between MiB in the present, and that in the 1960s.
Unfortunately, whilst Jemaine Clement does an admirable job making Boris really quite deliciously unpleasant, there's little else to distinguish the character from any number of other villains-of-the-week that we've seen in science fiction of late, and ultimately, this makes the story a little bit flat, especially given its labyrinthine nature, and the fact that the script was unfinished at time of filming.
The real joys of the movie are to be found in three places - first, the interaction between J and K. Initially it's between the ever-reliable Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones combination - all whip-crack jibes and surly grunts respectively, they're picking up from being the only thing that made the second film bearable, and their pairing doesn't disappoint this time either.
But shortly after it starts, Jones hands the reigns to Josh Brolin, who proceeds to do a rather uncanny impression/interpretation of the character in his late twenties - after an accent and nose change, of course. Brolin does a great job here, and manages to devolve the character quite magnificently to his 'free-wheeling' late twenties.
Next, and as mentioned, are Sonnenfield's visuals. Without 3D getting in the way - and some prefunctory objects-coming-at-you moments aside - the visuals are sharp, and have that curious, cock-eyebrowed sensibility that Sonnenfield perfected with the first iteration of the franchise. Sonnenfield also manages to keep the tone light and the pace rapid, creating a movie that once again never outstays its welcome.
The final joy is an entirely new character known as Griffin. Played with wide-eyed wonderment by Michael Stuhlbarg - of Boardwalk Empire fame - the character is an alien being who can see all possible realities, before, after and as they happen. A genuinely intriguing creation, the only shame is that there's not more of him - but he provides the MacGuffin to drive the story forward, and a few of the movie's funnier moments.
There're also other good things - Emma Thompson provides her dulcet tones and impeccable comic timing to O, Rip Torn/Zed's replacement, and there's a rather fun cameo from Bill Hader, as a version of Andy Warhol that's not quite all he seems.
Ultimately, this isn't quite as good as the first one, if only because the novelty has worn off somewhat. But if we ignore the second film and take Men in Black as a duology of 1 and 3, it actually works suprisingly well, and rounds itself off quite nicely, in the only way that a time travel narrative really can. The dialogue is sharp, the majority of the characters memorable, and even if the story is ultimately a little flat, it's brought back that little thing known as 'fun', and that goes rather a long way. Better than expected, then, and certainly worth a look.