Men in Black 3
Director : Barry Sonnenfeld
Screenplay : Etan Cohen (based on the comic book series by Lowell Cunningham)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2012
Stars : Will Smith (Agent J), Tommy Lee Jones (Agent K), Josh Brolin (Young Agent K), Jemaine Clement (Boris The Animal), Emma Thompson (Agent O), Michael Stuhlbarg (Griffin), Mike Colter (Colonel), Nicole Scherzinger (Boris’ Girlfriend), Michael Chernus (Jeffrey Price), Alice Eve (Young Agent O), David Rasche (Agent X), Keone Young (Mr. Wu), Bill Hader (Andy Warhol), Cayen Martin (Colonel’s Son)
Although there is no compelling reason for there to be a third Men in Black film (if it is to make up for the lackluster second installment, released way back in 2002, it feels almost embarrassingly overdue), Men in Black 3 does contain the single most impressive special effect in the now 14-year-old series: Josh Brolin’s dead-on portrayal of a many-decades-younger version of Tommy Lee Jones’s intractably stern Agent K. To call Brolin’s performance a superior impersonation would be an insult to the manner in which Brolin embodies all of the physical mannerisms and vocal cadences that have come to define one of Jones’s most defining screen characters while also making the role his own. The younger Agent K is just as hard-faced, practical, and unflappable as his older counterpart, but Brolin brings to him just the slightest hint of youthful swagger; he’s hard, alright, but not fully cemented yet.
We meet the young Agent K (who, in one of the film’s better jokes, confirms that he is only 29 although he already looks like he’s in his late 40s) because the plot this time around requires K’s longtime partner, Agent J (Will Smith), to go back in time to the fabled summer of 1969, where the twin miracles of the last-place Mets winning the World Series and NASA launching the first manned mission to the moon becomes important plot points. J’s time-travelling is necessitated by Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement), a particularly nasty alien assassin who escapes solitary confinement in a high-security prison on the moon and jumps back in time to kill Agent K, who was directly responsible for his imprisonment (and loss of one arm). Boris’s messing with the time-space continuum creates a new future with no Agent K and an all-out alien invasion of Earth, so J has no choice but to go back to the Age of Aquarius and keep history on the right track.
Not surprisingly, director Barry Sonnenfeld (who has helmed all three films) has fun with the late-’60s environment, giving us long-haired hippies, race-baiting traffic cops, and a stand-out sequence at Andy Warhol’s Factory that makes the obvious (but still funny) observation that there has probably been no better place in the history of humanity for an alien to hide. The film has an overly digital sheen that makes its various CGI sequences (in 3D, of course) feel more gimmicky than they are, although Rick Baker’s prosthetics are impressive as ever, bringing a welcome sense of texture to several scenes. Another of the film’s most impressive effects comes courtesy of neither digital nor prosthetic wizardry, but rather the performance by Michael Stuhlbarg as Griff, the last of an alien species who is gifted/cursed with the ability to see multiple potential futures. Stuhlbarg, dressed in overstuff winters clothes and a wool hat in the middle of the summer, plays Griff as a gentle oddball, constantly in the ungainly place of having to inform those around him of potential bad news. He brings a surprising level of unabashed sweetness and (get this!) humanity to a film that is usually mired in fits of irony and spectacle.
As with all time-travel movies, Men in Black 3 plays fast and loose with the paradoxes of time travel; it is as if screenwriter Etan Cohen (Tropic Thunder) is hoping that we won’t pay too much attention and accept all manner of improbabilities and inconsistencies (for example, when J misses an early opportunity to kill Boris, he keeps on moving forward in linear time, when he could have just used his time travel device to go back in time a few minutes and try again, which is what he does later in the film). However, Men in Black 3 is the kind of movie where it’s best not to ask too many questions, which is how the series (based on a comic book series by Lowell Cunningham) has always operated. It is, after all, a story predicated on the idea that aliens have been living on Earth for decades in various disguises and are kept in check by a top-secret government organization of black-suited agents.
The first film (released back in 1997, the year after Smith saved the world from another alien invasion in Independence Day) did wonders with the concept, playing up the disparity between the agents’ ho-hum attitude of business as usual in the face of constant intergalactic weirdness for big laughs, which didn’t play so well in the second installment. This time around, Sonnenfeld wisely plays to the strengths of the series’ longevity, drawing some genuine emotion out of the buddy routine between slick-talking J and granite-faced K and plumbing the depths of their relationship. There is the obvious familiarity of Smith’s smoothness and Jones/Brolin’s grumpiness, but the actors wear their characters like comfortable old clothes, and it works for the most part, reminding us of why J and K were interesting foils for each other in the first place.
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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