Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Screenplay: Etan Cohen, Lowell Cunningham
Starring: Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Jermaine Clement
Year: 2012
Country: USA
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 106 mins

The original Men In Black charmed the world back in 1997. Barry Sonnenfeld and co’s creation was fresh, funny and had quirky “big-small” ideas about the universe we live in. From the moment the brave-new outer-space insect got smushed on a big-rig windscreen and all the way up to the playful galaxy-marble send off, new Agent J’s (Will Smith) discovery of this world within our own was a constant, joke-filled delight based on a simple idea that everything around us was the same, but a little bit different.

Remember Will Smith dragging the table and shooting the cardboard girl in the interview process? The destructive bouncy space ball? The background screen of celebrities who are all monitored aliens? The red button in the car, the moody angry alien trapped in an Edgar suit, talking pug dog shake down, regrowing head man and tiny alien ambassador in the man robot on Linda Fiorentino’s mortuary slab?

Aah, good times. Remember anything about Men in Black 2 in 2002?

Us neither.

This is therefore the benchmark for Men in Black 3. Is it something special? Or just a romp with the same characters that tries hard, but again falls short of the spark it had in 1997?

To get this out of the way, it is the latter. Men in Black 3 falls well short. There are unexpected touches for the relationship between J and K, particularly towards the end (worth noting: the script was unfinished when filming began), and MIB 3 tries to have bold new perspectives on the world – in this case time, destiny and random possibility. However for all the effort, and to be clear effort is visible on screen, the story is gimmicky and unengaging and it fails to carry the sense of effortlessness and… charm… that so characterised the original.

It is a pity, because fun was there to be had. Ingredients include time travel and the delicate nature of history, Men in Black but in the 60s, a “young” version of Agent K, Jermaine Clement (the taller half of Flight of the Conchords) in a growling bad-alien role, improved effects and 10 years to come up with a really inventive story.

However tasty ingredients do not always make an equally tasty cake.

The story starts with the escape of Jermaine Clement’s heavily made-up Boris the Animal (“it’s just Boris”) – a insect-y Bogladite who has been imprisoned on the Moon since Agent K shot off his arm in 1969. He harbours a serious grudge, so when he escapes he goes back in time to kill K, stop K ever disintegrating his arm, and also prevent K from setting up the “ArcNet” that protects the Earth from the Bogladites invading in the present day. So when K vanishes from the present – along with the Arcnet – the invasion begins and J must go back in time to stop re-writing of history from happening. At the same time Agent J has been frustrated that Tommy Lee Jones’ K had still been refusing to open up to him, so spends much of his time with the younger K – Josh Brolin – trying to find out why.

Time travel can be complicated, but to its credit MiB3 calmly brushes off these issues and keeps things simple. For the most part, scenes alternate between plot and character as Agent J tries to find and kill “younger Boris” (thereby stopping future-Boris from being able to re-write history) and solve the reason why K has been so standoffish all these years. Plot elements involve the usual MiB tropes such as interrogating strange aliens and an Andy Warhol undercover agent skit, and life in the 60s can be breezy as Josh Brolin deftly underplays his version of the low-speed Agent K. Will Smith also has his usual plenty of comedy danger and exhausted frustration to get stuck in and wail through.

The action plunders towards the July 1969 space launch, and a big finish has its moments as it rounds off (some of) everything that comes before it.

MiB3‘s issues, however, lie in the fact that neither the story nor its ideas get sufficient attention to detail. Boris is a “that’ll do” bad guy who has spiders living under his skin, but there’s never a sense of why this is other than the fact that it’s fairly creepy. Similarly there’s never really a sense of why the Bogladites are so desperate to attack Earth, we just have to accept they do – and why only Agent J seems to be willing or able to do anything about it. Or why the Arcnet stops Bogladites (but not aliens who tried to invade in previous films). Or why Boris assassinates some guy with a head the size of his turban. Or why the Men in Black had futuristic motorbikes on a gyroscope that J isn’t aware of in the future (are they dangerous, did they eventually kill their riders or have a propensity to explode – nope no idea, the bikes are dropped 2 minutes later). Or the same issue, but with jetpacks. For that matter any potential retro differences between 1960s MIB team are ignored – everything looks the same but for the haircuts – and Andy Warhol is an undercover agent spying on alien models, but why this is story relevant is a mystery other than the fact that it is a little bit funny.

We could go on, but throughout a number of standalone characters, scenes and ideas are dropped into the story without feeling part of a rich Men In Black world.

And this was the strength of the original Men In Black.

The character of Griff – as a trans-dimensional being who exists across all of time and potential realities and is constantly aware of the delicate nature of possibility – is interesting, but unfortunately reduced to a “get them to the next place” plot device. As with the film he means well and has the occasional gem, but more often than not is required to recite lines brimming with pseudo-destiny-randomness talk that try to have depth, but don’t.

Ultimately it is a matter of simplicity and polish. The original MiB film was radically overhauled from its initial jet-set, multi-location, multi-alien war-plot-heavy script to make it simpler, more character driven and more focussed on its strengths: that is the notion of everything around us being potentially alien, and covered up by men in black suits armed with neutralisers and “noisy crickets”. It was then on top of this that the alien fight over the tiny galaxy was layered. In contrast MiB3 began filming before the script was even finished, and therefore the alien plot is mostly all there is, with the exploration of Agents J and K given a “tacked-on” feel.

So if the first hour plus feels like place-markers that don’t fit seamlessly into a whole – it’s possibly because they are. Filming had begun before a simpler version could be chiselled from its promising potential and perhaps not quiet knowing where the story would go, the end result treads a little too much water, rehashes alien gags and lurches from one not-quite-all-there set piece to another. The last half an hour is an improvement – remarkable considering when it was written – but any story that springs solely from a fun but “that’ll do” bad guy, is going to feel a little…. “that’ll do”, and lack the charm of the simple world and ideas of the original.

The end result makes MiB3 a fairly enjoyable caper with familiar characters that some will enjoy, but for others it won’t do enough with its ideas to justify a full-price, big screen release.

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