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Men in Black 3: Big Willie Flop

by admin May 25, 2012 6:00 am
Men in Black 3: Big Willie Flop

A prime example of a franchise sequel that exists purely because it can, rather than because it should, Men in Black 3 arrives in theaters feeling like a relic from a distant past when Will Smith was the biggest movie star in the world. And it's possible that he still is, in which case it's the picture that's real small. Even though it affords its lead plenty of opportunities to flash that mega-watt smile and sharp comic timing and piles effects-heavy set piece on top of effects-heavy set piece, MiB3 can't mask its fundamental pointlessness. It's so instantly forgettable that even though I saw it in the theater in all its 3D-enhanced glory, I felt as though I was watching it at home during the late-night cable run it'll receive a few years hence. You know, one of those experiences where you randomly stumble upon a sequel while surfing the movie networks and go, "Oh right -- they made a third one" before changing the channel.

It wasn't always this way, of course. Made in 1997, the original Men in Black is still a pretty terrific movie, a funny, clever riff on immigration dressed up as a summer blockbuster. Set in a version of America where most resident aliens are actually... well, resident aliens, the film embedded us amongst the squad of secret agents charged with protecting our intergalactic borders, the Men in Black. Besides the crackling comic energy produced by Smith and co-star Tommy Lee Jones, the first movie also had a great villain in the form of Vincent D'Onofrio's space bug as well as action sequences that effectively mixed humor and spectacle -- a balancing act that fewer action comedies pull off than you might expect. Case in point: the spectacle remained, but the humor was largely missing by the time the overblown, underwritten Men in Black II rolled into theaters five years later. And now a full decade on, the third installment lacks virtually any comic spark. At this point, the franchise seems as exhausted as its two stars look.

Actually, awarding Jones full "star" credit here would be a big stretch as he's barely in the movie. Instead, for the bulk of the film, his perpetually crusty and cranky Agent K is portrayed by Josh Brolin. No, this isn't a body-switching situation -- it's time travel, silly! When a particularly bloodthirsty alien named Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement, who would be wise to start prepping a Flight of the Conchords reunion ASAP) escapes his lunar prison, he decides to destroy the life of the man who put him there -- K, naturally -- by journeying back to the '60s and killing K's younger self, thus erasing him from the timeline and paving the way for Earth's takeover by Boris's alien race. This overly complicated plan works; one second K is sitting in his apartment and the next minute he's gone, with all the people that knew him believing that he was killed in action in 1969. All that is, except one: his partner J, who is positive that's something happening here, but he doesn't know what it is. Fortunately, his new boss Agent O (Emma Thompson) does; history has been changed and J has to venture back to '69 himself to put things right. One perilous time jump from a Manhattan skyscraper later and J is loose in '60s New York, where he and young K team up to find and kill Boris before he finds and kill them.

Time travel has long been a popular device for sci-fi movies (comedies in particular) but only a handful of films actually do it right. MiB 3 is not one of them. From the beginning, the rules and consequences of the movie's timeline tomfoolery make little sense and become laughably illogical by the movie's climactic confrontation, which adds a surprise twist to J and K's relationship that's both unnecessary and practically nonsensical. Of course, one can generally forgive a film for its faulty time travel mechanics if it takes full advantage of its historical setting; the notion that Captain Kirk and his crew could travel back in time by slingshotting around the sun is blatantly absurd, but setting them down in '80s San Francisco resulted in one of the most enjoyable Star Trek movies ever. But after contriving to send J back to 1969, the writers and director Barry Sonnenfeld can't really think of anything amusing for him to do once he's there. Besides a brief encounter with some racist cops and a short trip to Andy Warhol's Factory (Warhol himself is played by Bill Hader in a cameo that should be a lot funnier than it is), the '60s setting has next to no impact on the story. Instead, the narrative simply defaults to sending J and K racing from one action sequence to another with a few dialogue-driven scenes in between -- a structure that's more like a video game than a feature film. Only the video game would probably be a lot more fun to play than the movie is to watch.

Amidst the general tedium, there are two redeeming features to MiB3. The first is Brolin's performance, which begins as an expert bit of mimicry (part of me now wants to see Brolin play younger versions of every major Tommy Lee Jones character -- how about a Fugitive prequel with him as a rookie Gerard?) but eventually morphs young K into a distinct and compelling character in his own right. Should the MiB franchise continue beyond this point -- and this is not to imply that it deserves to -- the filmmakers may want to consider keeping it a period piece and giving Brolin an entirely new partner to play off of, one who would be more engaged and collaborative than Smith is here. The other highlight here is an alien named Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg; so good in the Coen Brothers masterpiece A Serious Man a few years back) who holds the key to defeating Boris and has the power to see multiple timelines at once. It's the latter characteristic that makes him such an interesting presence and Stuhlbarg does a nice job locating both the comedy and the tragedy in Griffin's particular plight. Whenever he's onscreen, this alien gives MiB3 what it needs most: a touch of humanity.

Click here to see what career advice we'd recommend that the cast of Men in Black 3 give to their younger selves

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