THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"MEN IN BLACK 3"
It's what's on the screen that matters. Men in Black 3 is proof. Entertainment reports have focused heavily on the film's behind-the-scenes troubles: that it began shooting without a finished script, that production was halted for months while they tried to develop a workable third act, that star Will Smith grew frustrated by the process, etc. More often than not, these kinds of problems lead to turkeys of epic proportions (remember Jonah Hex?). But not always. Men in Black 3 is a case where they managed to figure it out. While by no means a classic, the backstage difficulties don't show. Perhaps against the odds, the film works pretty well.
Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones return as Agents J and K. They're still doing the usual routine, monitoring alien life on Earth and ensuring that humans never know about the presence of extraterrestrials. Meanwhile, an old foe of K's, Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement), escapes from forty years of imprisonment on the moon, vowing revenge against the man who put him there and shot off his arm. His plan involves going back in time to kill K, right before the confrontation that landed him behind bars. The side effect of his time-traveling is that it opens the door for a hostile invasion of our planet. Agent J discovers that he can do a “time jump” that will put him back in the late '60s, where he hopes to kill Boris before Boris kills K. Josh Brolin plays the past Agent K, who has to be convinced that this guy he's never seen before really is his partner of the future.
I loved the original Men in Black. I recall giving the generally-maligned sequel a good review too, although I've never revisited it. Men in Black 3 didn't seem like a movie that needed to be made. It wasn't clear how they were going to find anything new to do. Creating a time travel movie turns out to be an inspired idea. Although Tommy Lee Jones makes what is essentially a glorified cameo, his character is alive and well in the hands of Josh Brolin, who does a hilarious, spot-on impersonation of Jones. He's fantastic, as is the always-funny Jemaine Clement. The “Flight of the Conchords” actor hits the right note of being both menacing and comically egotistical as Boris. The other key performance comes from Michael Stuhlbarg as an alien who can see multiple timelines simultaneously, and is therefore acutely aware of disaster that might be pending. Smith and Jones are reliably good, but these supporting actors steal the film right out from under them. They provide just the breath of fresh air that this long-delayed sequel needs to feel justified.
A big part of what I like about the MIB pictures is their humor and their originality, both of which are in effect here. Multiple scenes made me laugh, as Smith/Jones/Brolin fight off a series of bizarre aliens, exchanging clever barbs at each other along the way. Some of the set pieces are really inventive too. The scene in which Agent J does his time jump off a skyscraper is dazzling, and the final battle with Boris takes place at a delightfully unique location. Those last twenty minutes delivered something I'd never quite seen in a movie before, which is always a plus. Another welcome addition is the development of the relationship between J and K. By going into the past, J learns why his partner has such a gruff attitude, while also learning about the man's personal hopes and dreams. You wouldn't expect a Men in Black movie to be touching, but it kind of is.
This being the third film in the series, the thrill of seeing a live-wire like Will Smith share screen space with the irascible Tommy Lee Jones – a combination that fueled the original movie – has worn off a bit. And there's a space near the end of the second act where the laugh ratio gets low; for a while, the plot is so busy establishing the time travel effects that the comedy gets pushed into the background. It would also have been nice for a sequence involving Andy Warhol's “Factory” to have more of a payoff than it does, especially since the great Bill Hader plays Warhol. Its inclusion feels like a stunt rather than an integral part of the story.
While it may not ever reach the sublime, absurd heights of the original, Men in Black 3 is a lot of fun. Did a third installment in this series need to exist? No, but it offers enough new variations on the formula to make me glad it does. Director Barry Sonnenfeld somehow pulled it all together, with Brolin, Clement, and Stuhlbarg proving to be the MVPs.
( out of four)
A Note on the 3D: There are two extended sequences in which the use of 3D is nothing short of phenomenal: Agent J's time jump, and the finale, which is set in a very high location. Both scenes get an added sense of danger from the extra dimension. The rest of the 3D is fun, but non-essential. Still, I think it's worth it for those two scenes alone.
Men in Black 3 is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, and brief suggestive content. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.
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