Back in the year 1997 Barry Sonnenfeld got together with Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones to give them kids of the 90s a little sci-fi fun in the form of Men In Black. Based on the Lowell Cunningham comic it told the story of a New York cop recruited by a secret organisation tasked with policing alien life on Earth. The film was a lot of fun, partly in thanks to slightly 80s attitude of asking the audience to just go along for the ridiculous ride. It didn’t take itself too seriously and so it managed to elevate itself above potential stupidity. A fine and enjoyable film. Its sequel was bollocks, far too concerned with showing zany and wacky aliens then telling an actual story. I was not planning on seeing Men in Black 3 partly because of how disappointing the second film was and this feeling that it existed to push Will Smith and sideline Tommy Lee Jones, cos he’s all old and stuff and Will Smith really needs a hit film. Last night there wasn’t much on TV and I was after a film to watch. Men in Black 3 was starting in a few minutes so I figured “what the hell”. Men in Black 3 is a good film. Click the jump for reasons.
In Men in Black 3 Agent J (Will Smith) has been struggling, after 14 years of being his partner, to get Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) to open up a little. He can tell something happened in K’s past but isn’t sure what. When he comes in to the MiB headquarters to find that not only is K not there, but he has been dead for 40 years, J realises that something may be wrong with that old space time continuum. Also, he has a craving for chocolate milk, which obviously confirms that fear. J travels back in time to stop a recently escaped alien named Boris (Jermaine Clement) from killing K in 1969 and at the same time he’ll probably learn some lessons about his partner’s past and what made him the cranky curmudgeon he is today.
Men in Black 3 manages a fine job of keeping the focus on the characters, their relationships and those tiny details that help gel a film world together. For a start the story is clearly focused on exploring the relationship between J and K, even if it does involve J saving K from a different life again. The second film barely delved into what made J and K tick, instead making it a race to return K to action to restore the status quo of the previous film. Here J feels he is ready to find out what happened in K’s past but can’t get anything from him. After K is wiped from history the process of J going back in time gives him that opportunity to get to know K before he got so grumpy and allows the film to actually explore their relationship. Josh Brolin plays the younger version of K in 1969 and does an incredible job of mimicking the performance style of Tommy Lee Jones but whilst putting a little more warmth into the act. Brolin is a damn fine actor and has proven his range many times over and his craft comes through here with the occasional fleeting smile and subtle moment of emotion, a trait the old K would rarely allow himself to be seen doing.
Production quality is up to a high standard, which you’d expect with a budget of $225,000,000. Not sure it’s all up on the screen, a few of the composites and CGI effects look a little out-dated, but in general everything looks fine. Sonnenfeld has always had a good eye for a stylish shot that doesn’t distract from the scene in question, likely due to his work as a DoP. On aspect of the design which is subtle, but very welcome, is how the aliens in 1969 look much more retro, all glass fish-bowl helmets and foam tubing. It helps differentiate the eras and ties nicely into that element of the Men in Black series where those little ideas you’ve had about aliens over the years are probably true. Rick Baker is back doing his practical effects work when it comes to the alien make-up which just helps add to selling the film’s world. Many of the aliens are covered in big dollops of computer generated trickery though and it does tend to stick out. That said, Jermaine Clement is barely recognisable behind the make-up job used to turn him into Boris the Animal and he does a fine job of selling the character with a decidedly alien approach to pronunciation and the blending of accents.
The film also manages to feel fresh by jettisoning a number of characters from the previous films, such as Rip Torn’s Agent Z and that talking Pug, although some have blink and you’ll miss them cameos. This allows a group of new characters to be shown off, primarily Agent O played by the lovely Emma Thompson in the present and the equally lovely Alice Eve in the past. Agent O plays a role of possible love interest for K in the past and also another potential reason for his miserly demeanour. Another new character is a fourth dimensional being called Griffen (Michael Stuhlbarg) who manages to be that rare (for modern films) form of comic relief that doesn’t grate or annoy and also isn’t a horrible racial stereotype. He actually brings a little heart and Zen to the film with his discussions of what is, was and could be. Both these characters are infinitely more likeable than a talking dog or whatever those little spindly alien things were in the last two films. This is because they are characters and not punchlines. More films should realise this.
A lot of the strengths this entry has over the previous film can likely be put down to the long gestation period the film’s production went through. The film’s plot was originally suggested to Sonnenfeld by Will Smith during the filming of Men in Black 2. Years of difficulties between the studio, Sony Pictures, and Sonnenfeld likely helped lead to the much more well rounded core story. The screenplay was written by Etan Cohen who may not have built up a resume of entirely great works but has, on occasion, shown signs of real quality, as seen in Idiocracy and Tropic Thunder. The film is undoubtedly a Sonnenfeld story though as it’s filled with a focus on a dysfunctional family group (as in the father-son relationship between J and K) set within an unusual world. He’s never been a particularly thought provoking director but when it comes to fun adventures he does nail it quite often. We just won’t mention Wild Wild West or RV.
Men in Black 3 managed to be a fair bit more enjoyable than I maybe went in expecting it to be. I can’t quite figure out how it cost so much to make, maybe it was money spent on all the feather dusters needed to keep the MiB headquarters looking all pristine. It’s not a particularly bold film either. But it shows a lot of restraint compared to many blockbuster films these days. A repercussion of K’s death is the invasion of Earth, made possible due to K never establishing a defence grid around the Earth. This is barely shown in the present scenes which is a smart move. A big alien invasion plot would have distracted from the character elements at the core of the story. All we needed to see was that that threat existed and would be a cost of a potential failure by J. So whilst this film isn’t going to blow your mind grapes to pieces it should at least entertain and provide you with a satisfying character focused story that manages to understand that the appeal of Men In Black isn’t so much the weird aliens as it is the predicaments and interactions the two leads get tangled up in. Worth a watch, even if you disliked the second film.