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Men in Black III

May 29, 2012
Men in Black III

I should confess, up front, that I’ve always been a fan of Men in Black, and not just because the costume designers understand the inimitable cool that is Hamilton’s Ventura watch design. Between Ed Solomon’s witty script, Barry Sonnenfeld’s facility with both spectacular, large-scale visuals and well-choreographed, personal-scale physical comedy, Tommy Lee Jones’ understated delivery, and Will Smith’s overstated delivery, everything just came together. The formula is strong enough that I even enjoyed the sequel, despite a lackluster, schtick-ridden script and a villain without half of Vincent D’Onofrio’s charisma as “Edgar”.

So, when ten years later they decided to go back to that well for Men in Black III, many viewers and reviewers ask “why?” Me, I’m ready to go; at worst it could have been a fun little piece of fluff, and thankfully it turned out even better than that. Tropic Thunder writer Etan Cohen understands what made the first movie’s screenplay great, and makes it work with one of the hardest science fiction subgenres to pull off.

Because this is a time travel movie. After an alien assassin named “Boris The Animal” — sorry, that’s just Boris (Jermaine Clement) — escapes from a high-security MIB prison on the moon, he goes back in time to kill Agent K (Jones), who shot off Boris’ arm before arresting him forty years ago. Agent J (Smith) follows, jumping both through time and off of the Chrysler Building to July, 1969. What that means, any self-respecting geek knows without having to be told.

Despite the standard warning about not unduly interacting with the past, J hooks up with his former-partner-to-be as a young man (Josh Brolin), who must stop both the original Boris and the new one, and also deploy a planetary defense system which will prevent Boris’ species from invading in the future.

Like I said, time travel movies are really hard to pull off effectively. For one thing, there’s the whole problem of internal consistency; some people will nitpick any continuity error, but something about time travel brings these critics out of the woodwork. Cohen lampshades the big sticking point — how J remembers K when nobody else does — and he does it early, letting us get on with the ride. He also sets up some cute coincidences, but doesn’t beat us over the head with them until they’re ready to pay off.

The other big problem with time travel is that it can degenerate into an overlong sequence of potshots at the host time period that feels forced long before the movie is over — Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, anyone? Cohen dodges this pitfall as well, containing it for the most part in a trip to The Factory, where Andy Warhol (Bill Hader) seems to be the only one who’s not an alien.

But the heart of a Men in Black movie is the interplay between Smith and Jones, and Brolin deserves high praise for his uncanny portrayal of what amounts to Jones’ standard character, forty years younger. Simple mimicry of Jones would have been impressive enough, but Brolin gives K a certain twist that plays directly into the character dynamics at play. If awards-granting institutions didn’t hate both genre movies and comedies, I would put him in serious contention for his performance.

I also want to point out Michael Stuhlbarg’s strong supporting role as a helpful alien with some temporal abilities of his own. The childlike innocence of his character is essential to lightening the tone of the movie, which otherwise risks being dominated by Clement’s powerfully dark villain. Having Stuhlbarg around means Clement can be really over-the-top nasty.

Sonnenfeld’s visuals are great, of course, but this is his first feature in 3D. And for a rare change I’m not going to completely pan it. The screen is usually pretty bright, preventing the common muddy. effect. More interestingly, there seems to be almost a fish-eye sort of thing going on with the stereography; the foreground characters seem even further forward from the middle-ground characters than the middle-ground is from the background, giving rise to an off-kilter sensation that matches the skewed tone of the film. Is it necessary? no, but it’s not as completely pointless as most 3D is.

So I may be biased. I admit that there was little chance going in that I wasn’t going to enjoy myself. But bias can’t account for everything; this really is one of the good, fun movies that Barry Sonnenfeld is so good at making.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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