It’s been a while, but everyone’s favourite clandestine government agents are back for a third film! In case you haven’t been keeping track, it’s been ten years since Men in Black 2 stunk up the cinemas, leaving audiences baffled and angry. MiB2 was bereft of the wit and invention of the original, instead treating audiences to more Frank the Pug and disgusting Worm People. Ignoring the need for a decent story, it was more concerned with upping the number of celebrity cameos – the worst of which was Michael Jackson’s (“Zed! Zed! Please! I could be Agent M!”). Fan reaction could not have been worse if George Lucas had inserted Jar Jar Binks and a gang of Ewoks into Raiders of the Lost Ark. Needless to say, the fallout of MIB2 meant that a lot of time had to pass before anyone could return to the franchise.
And with Men in Black 3, they have made a significant improvement on the second. Apart from Agents Jay and Kay (the returning Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones), there are no residual characters from the earlier films. The story finds Earth in a whole load of trouble when an intergalactic criminal called Boris the Animal escapes from Moon prison, travels to the past and kills Jones in 1969. As we know from all the time travel movies we’ve seen, this can only result in bad things: Jones doesn’t survive into the events of the first film and Smith never ends up being his partner. In fact, no-one in the agency even remembers him, with the exception of the new boss, Agent O — played by Smith’s I am Legend co-star Emma Thompson (is something going on that we should know about?).
To set things right and save his partner, Smith has no choice but to hop in the proverbial DeLorean and shake things up in the 60s, Big Willy Style.
Now, the time-travel plot device is not exactly new to the world of comedy sequels. You may recall Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me having a pretty similar storyline. In MIB3, the time-hopping story allows for all sorts of fun shenanigans to take place. First and foremost, the best thing about this film is Josh Brolin. Playing the young 1969 version of Agent K, Brolin does an eerily accurate impression of Tommy Lee Jones’ super laconic Texan drawl. It’s a performance so good that threatens to wipe Will Smith straight off the screen.
Director Barry Sonnenfeld and production designer Bo Welch (Beetlejuice) also have a great time elaborating on the MIB universe, creating a version of the agency in the 1960s complete with mini-skirts and enormous jet-age style machines: we discover that the original model of the mind-wiping neuralyzer resembles an MRI machine crossed with a centrifuge. The film also keeps in with the running gag that all celebrities are in fact aliens, including a trip to Andy Warhol’s Factory studio, where we learn the truth about the New York art scene!
Sci-Fi purists may bristle at the rather vague time travel implications; Smith seems easily able to vaporise aliens and interact with people from the 60s without threatening his own future. As the character charged with explaining the intricacies of time and space in the MIB universe, Michael Stuhlbarg (Arnold Rothstein from Boardwalk Empire) is an alien who can apparently perceive events from the all possible pasts and all possible futures. From a plot perspective, Stuhlbarg serves little purpose other than giving the agents an item they need, but his flashback-sequences-of-sorts are one of the films many new additions that work out.
As much as they’ve improved things since the MIB2 debacle, there are still things in this film that don’t work so well. Jemaine Clement’s turn as an alien bruiser is once sticking point that springs to mind. The make-up effects used on him are pretty terrifying, but his performance is really stilted and self-conscious, like a primary school science teacher playing Captain Hook in a community theatre Panto. And also, is it just me or has Will Smith lost a step? Maybe it’s because he isn’t playing the rookie anymore, but he’s a much more subdued presence in this film than he was the earlier entries. Maybe it’s his age, or maybe he’s finally grown tired of his wise-cracking Fresh Prince persona or maybe it just the fact that Brolin is so good that Smith is relegated to playing second fiddle.
This is a totally solid entry of a blockbuster franchise that is parsecs better than the execrable MIB2. It’s made -as they call it- boffo box office, taking in over $600million worldwide, which would suggest that we might be seeing more black suits coming at us before too long. But should they really make another one? As decent as MIB3 is, it has a pretty slight story that’s less of an essential sequel than it is an excuse for another joyride through the movie’s universe. It has a lot of great performances and plenty of novel, but it’s far from being essential viewing. Let’s put it this way: it’s perfect for a casual movie night, but you probably won’t be showing it to your grand kids in the year 2050.
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