Monday, May 28, 2012

Review: Men in Black 3

It wasn't supposed to be like this.

Of all the high profile movies coming out this summer -- and there are a lot of them -- there was none I was less interested in than Men in Black 3. It's been 15 years since Men in Black, a movie I really liked. But it's also been 10 years since Men in Black II, a movie that no one liked. Was there any real demand for a third installment? Did anyone feel like there was more story to be told here?

This is a movie that started filming back in 2010, and was then shut down for six weeks in the middle of production because it was going so terribly. This is a movie with a budget so wildly out of control that a recent L.A. Times piece estimates it may have cost as much as $375 million (after prints and distribution costs). The fact that it's not a complete disaster is impressive. The fact it's pretty good is a goddamn miracle.

15 years after first becoming partners, Men in Black agents J and K (Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones) still don't know anything about one another and just barely get along. A murderous alien called Boris the Animal (Flight of the Conchords' Jemaine Clement under heavy Rick Baker makeup) escapes from moon prison and returns to Earth to seek vengeance on K. He finds a way to travel back in time and kill K in the past, effectively wiping him from existence and destroying the entire planet in the process. That leaves it to J to travel back to 1969 and team up with the younger version of K (Josh Brolin doing an uncanny Tommy Lee Jones impression) to put the timeline back on course and ensure Earth's survival.

Unlike most Hollywood blockbusters, which may start with some promise but unravel and disintegrate as they hurtle towards the end credits, Men in Black 3 actually gets better as it goes along. Almost half of the movie is wasted setting up the need for J to go back in time, and the majority of that stuff is noisy and lazy in the same way that MIB II was. The chemistry between Smith and Jones is no longer there; they seem uncomfortable on camera together, and it's more than just a character choice. Much of the exposition is clunky and badly handled. The setup for the time travel element feels like an afterthought. Another huge plot point is explained away with a character's thirst for chocolate milk. I'M SERIOUS. I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of this stuff is what was shot before they stopped production, because if the movie had continued on the path it was heading during these scenes, it would have been the train wreck I was anticipating based on the trailers.

Once we travel back to 1969, though, things get a lot better. Good, even. Bo Welch's production design is spiffy and retro. Rick Baker's alien design very cleverly switches over to only showcase makeup that would have been possible in the period (it's one of the movie's best jokes, made better by the fact that attention is never called to it). Most importantly, though, Etan Cohen's script tightens up (with uncredited help from Jeff Nathanson) and things start coming into focus. The original Men in Black was a movie about discovery -- the discovery of a shadowy government organization, of aliens living among us, of the possibility of infinite worlds. The sequel failed because it added nothing to the universe (because Lara Flynn Boyle does not count as adding "something"). Men in Black 3 works because it understands that there's nothing external left to be discovered, so it internalizes the discovery. It's a discovery of character and relationships. That's really smart; the movie justifies its existence not just by giving us more crazy aliens or even the new wrinkle of time travel, but by letting us get to know its characters in a new way. Of all three films in the series, that gives Men in Black 3 the biggest heart.

No one needed MIB3 to succeed more than Will Smith. When we last saw the Fresh Prince on movie screens, he was climbing into a bathtub to commit suicide by jellyfish. That was four years ago, which is a long time even if your last movie was a big hit. If your last movie was Seven Pounds, four years is an eternity. Maybe that explains why Smith's confidence seems visibly shaken in Men in Black 3 -- he needs a hit, and it shows. He seems so skittish and unsure here that I would believe you if you told me this was his first big movie role. I might even say he was pretty good for a rapper-turned-sitcom-actor. But he's one of the biggest movie stars in the world, and he's still only pretty good for a rapper-turned-sitcom-actor.

He's completely outclassed by Josh Brolin, who steals the movie in a big, big way. He doesn't just do Tommy Lee Jones; he does Tommy Lee Jones better than Tommy Lee Jones. That is, whereas Jones seems visibly bored and annoyed to be in the movie (and, again, it feels like more than just a character choice), Brolin commits to the impression while managing to add new layers to the character. If there's ever a Men in Black 4 -- and there probably should not be -- it will be hard to go back to seeing Tommy Lee Jones as K. Brolin owns the role after this. How did that happen? Just a few years ago, the Man Who Was Brand was playing the heavy opposite living dolls Paul Walker and Jessica Alba in Into the Blue and being accused of beating up Diane Lane. But in a relatively short period of time, he became one of the most dependable actors in Hollywood, giving performances that always work and are interesting whether the movie is good (No Country for Old Men) or bad (W.).

I was fully expecting Men in Black 3 to be the biggest disaster of the summer. Instead, the movie is one of its most welcome surprises. Go figure.

Heck, if this one can work, maybe there's hope for The Amazing Spider-Man after all.


  1. Nobody was really ever praying and wishing for the third film in this series, but it wasn't all that bad. I still had plenty of fun with Will Smith and I thought James Brolin's whole impersonation/performance of Tommy Lee Jones, was spot-on and added a whole lot more comedy to the final product. Good review Patrick.

  2. I'm happy (I guess) that the movie wasn't a complete bomb, but I still can't seem to get excited about it, even after reading your excellent review.

    Although I am a fan of Josh/Jonah Brolin/Hex. He's no angel .

    1. It's definitely not a movie to get excited about. I probably wouldn't tell everyone to see it; my reaction was more one of "Wow! This isn't terrible!" - Patrick Bromley, F This Movie!

  3. I saw this Monday morning, and I think you nailed it, Patrick. It was so much better than I was expecting. Also-- could the fact that Tommy Lee looks like he wants to be a million miles away during the first half, which you pointed out, actually be an acting decision gone horribly wrong? Think about the point the film makes (rather heavy-handedly) about his character's affect. By trying to convey that, could he accidentally have conveyed "I do not want to be here"?

    1. I don't think we'll ever know. I think any time that criticism is raised, the filmmakers (or the movie's defenders) can fall back on exactly what you suggest -- that he's acting that way ON PURPOSE. I suspect that's not the case, but who am I to argue with ACTING?

  4. Just came back from seeing it in 3D (which adds nothing to the movie but it's neat because I like 3D) and Patrick nails it. The first 40 minutes or so are embarrassing, precisely the type of cynical sequel and Will Smith vehicle I was expecting from a franchise dormant for over a decade. You'd expect Agent J to have become less of a rookie in his demeanor and way of approaching the job after 15 years at it, or to stand up better to Agent K's non-being being. And, as a villain, Jemaine Clement's Boris is as stock and anonymous a bad guy as the alien invaders in "The Avengers."

    Joyce at (friend of this blog) has mentioned that "The Avengers" has ruined new movies for her because she can't help compare the fun she had with that one to how short in fun all the post-"Avengers" movies seen. "MIB III" is a perfect example of this 'diminishing returns' theory at work, especially when there's an entire "MIB" animated TV series with lots of episodes that were better written and more entertaining that the two "MIB" live action sequels combined.

    And yet the switch to '69 is brilliant. The 'jumping off the building to jump in time' visual jokes (the stock brokers jumping off the building actually made me do a spit-take from laughing so hard) were fast, quick and pretty creative. Brolin's better-than-Tommy Lee Jones' take on K makes it easy to overlook TLJ's bored stiff scenes (Jones' on-screen time is actually shockingly short) but Michael Stuhlbarg's Griffin with this movie's 'McGuffin' device gives the franchise a lot of its newfound heart. Griffin is like that alien character in "Galaxy Quest" whose visible joy and sincerity in what he says and does goes a long way to make one overlook the Forrest Gump-ish way the actor approaches the character. And, unlike most movie sequels with time travel that muck-up its predecessors ("Austin Powers 2" anyone?), the last few scenes of '69 "MIB III" actually want to make me want to rewatch the original "MIB" with the knowledge of what K knew before he recruited J to join the MIB. From memory I think "III" actually enhances the appeal of the original's still-perfect chemistry between Jones and Smith.

    Surprisingly I'd say go see "MIB III" (in 2D and with matinee prices if possible), it's two movies in conflict with one another but the better half wins out in the end and actually enhances the appreciation for the first "MIB" movie (and the sleeper animated series that's better than the sequels).