'Men in Black III' Guest Review: This Well-Loved Franchise Stays on the Right Track

'Men in Black III' Guest Review: This Well-Loved Franchise Stays on the Right Track

May 22, 2012

For months, if not years, the rumors were that Men in Black III was fated for disaster -- reportedly starting before a script was written, caught up in red tape as to whether or not Tommy Lee Jones would return to the franchise, with a multi-million budget that ballooned into the rumored range of $350 million like the national debt under Bush and so on and so forth. But, much like the thick door in the restaurant hides the homicidal bitchin' that goes down inside the kitchen while you enjoy your meal, the actual film here is not only good enough to make you forget those problems, but surprisingly good enough for you to enjoy it. Reuniting Will Smith with Tommy Lee Jones as Agent J and Agent K, street-level officers of an agency that monitors the alien life secretly living on earth, Men in Black III moves fast enough to glide over its own problems, with director Barry Sonnenfeld's sure hand, 3D and Josh Brolin giving it the push it needs to avoid utter disaster.

As in Men in Black (1997) and Men in Black II (2002), while J and K's work is mostly misdemeanors, a more felonious visitor has to be brought in at all cost -- this time around, an assassin named Boris the Animal (Jermaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords, unrecognizable and refreshing under Rick Baker's delightfully well-crafted make-up) escapes from prison and, trying to prevent his arrest and mutilation by Jones' K in 1969, takes advantage of a time machine to zip back to the past and undo his capture and pain. By killing K. Which he does, with time being re-written in brisk, visual fashion; only Smith's J, for some reason, recalls that things are as they shouldn't be, and soon goes back to the past to try and stop the present-day Boris before the present-day Boris can stop the past K from stopping the past Boris. (Jeffery Price, as the keeper of the time machine, and all attendant exposition, advises K to get in, get on with it and get out, or face being stuck in 1969, "… which was not the best time for your people." It's a note of realism that makes the fantasy better.)

Adrift in a '60s that's half Mad Men, half Catch Me if You Can, J soon finds K's younger self -- played, with uncanny timing and precision, by Josh Brolin, who doesn't so much imitate Jones as inhabit him, with some striking similarities and startling differences. (While the Academy is normally loath to recognize comedic performances, the mix of skill and spirit that go into Brolin's work here, I'd argue, are at least worthy of a nomination.) And as Smith himself has pointed out, the sci-fi-meets-the-'60s plot helps keep J a fish out of water even after 14 years of in-continuity service to the agency, a clever fillip that moves the film forward superbly while keeping Jones' workload low enough to, perhaps, help entice him to stay in the film. Clement is an excellent bad guy whose work is precisely in tune with the mood of the series as we know it -- lethal and ludicrous, psychopathic and preening, awful and arrogant.

But if there's a third Man in Black -- or fourth, depending on how you count Brolin's younger K, or fifth, if you include Emma Thompson's agreeable work as Agency head O, or sixth, if you include Alice Eve's comedic turn as the younger O -- it would have to be Barry Sonnenfeld, who's directed all three installments. Sonnenfeld's swooping, giddy camera work has been a highlight of films he's made or worked on for decades, and the fluid, freewheeling glides and slides of the camera he's given us since Raising Arizona and Blood Simple turn the films post-conversion 3D into an expressive, animating delight. Sure, there are problems with the script in Men in Black III, and a lot of exposition, and a finale that culminates in a summer-blockbuster standard fight atop something tall, but Smith's comedic timing, Brolin's virtuoso work and other areas of quality like Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man) as an alien with a neurotically omniscient perception of all possible worlds, best and worst make for an enjoyable bit of popcorn diversion.

Now and then, a film with too many writers on the script and too much money in the budget winds up being above-average, or at least above-adequate, and while I'd hope that all parties concerned are ready to hang up the black suits and shades, Men in Black III isn't that bad a finale for a franchise that, through hook and crook, not only hung onto its original stars and director but also our attention and enjoyment. Rating: 3/5 Stars

James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.

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