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By Brock Wilbur · May 27, 2012
I blame X-Com. It was a turn-based strategy game from the 90s where you controlled a secret government agency that covertly saved the planet from alien attacks. It was frightening, complicated, and so detailed that you were forced to manage everything from ammunition and radar positioning down to monthly budget allocation—a wonderful juxtaposition of terror and spreadsheets. I remember seeing the teaser trailer for the first Men in Black during the Superbowl, and losing my eleven-year-old mind because someone was clearly ripping off X-Com. So what if I didn't know about the Men In Black comic. Get off my back.
But I mention it because the high bar set by the bleak X-Com lead to a crushing disappointment for me upon seeing the ridiculous antics of Will Smith. I had expected a darker vision and felt offended by this slap-stick take on the serious issue of extra-terrestrial conflict I went through something very similar with Mars Attacks! as you might imagine. Then I grew to appreciate the Barry Sonnenfeld approach. The man may have given us Wild Wild West and RV, but he's also responsible for the glorious worlds of Pushing Daisies and the live-action The Tick. When he opts for a little extra darkness, he nearly out-Burtons Tim Burton, as this new entry in the MiB series serves testament.
Whereas I once wanted a bleaker vision of this series, the third entry comes to us lacking much of the humor the series is known for, trying instead to reach for tearjerker emotional moments. But in a movie where Will Smith is almost eaten alive by a giant slug, what audience is going to develop intense feelings about a time-traveling bromance? I'd rather have the talking dog back.
Men in Black 3opens with the escape of super-villain Boris the Animal (Jermaine Clement) from a prison on the moon. Here's our first major issue: the impeccable casting of a near-unrecognizable Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) as a bad guy is irrelevant because his full potential for both the scary and the comedic goes unused. It's almost a waste, save a few smaller scenes, including one where Boris argues with himself from the past. Boris also never evolves into the kind of frightful monster on par with the first two films. He's a weird looking guy with a bug in his hand, but next to a monster that eats people and another monster that eats people, he seems more odd than scary. This moon sequence also features the lead singer from the Pussycat Dolls shooting a huge gun. So there's that.
Back on Earth, Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) is being a real jerk to his partner Agent J (Will Smith) for no apparent reason. This is supposed to serve as the jumping off point for the mystery at the heart of the film, but fails to develop. Tommy Lee Jones has always been short, stubborn, and angry, so it's difficult to see him being "more so,” especially when we've had a ten year break since the last MiB. Jones himself seems to be rushing through his scenes, as if he's uninterested in what's happening around him. I realize a film in which one actor needs to copy the mannerisms of another actor isn't the time to completely re-invent yourself, but Jones just seems bored.
As mentioned, a time travel issue arises, and Agent J travels back to 1969 to save the planet and his partner—and he also hopes to learn what made Agent K such a grumpy gus in the process. Just like last week's Dark Shadows, we've got another fish-out-of-water sci-fi tale set in the same time period, but Sonnenfeld goes for true satire instead of silly one-liners. Will Smith being forced to deal with race relations of the late-sixties and deconstructing the ridiculousness of Andy Warhol's Factory makes for a more thoughtful adventure than pointing at an aging Alice Cooper and laughing. Also, Bill Hader makes one hell of a Warhol.
This section of the film allows for the introduction of two new characters that breathe exceptional life into the film. The first is Josh Brolin as a young Agent K. He brings all the charm and energy that Jones leaves at the door, and watching Brolin go all "Face-Off" on a better actor is just as hilarious as one might hope. The other character is the inter-dimensional traveler Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg), who observes every possible outcome of fate via the multi-verse, leading him to be just as neurotic as you'd expect from a man without a constant metaphysical consistency. Perhaps Woody Allen is also an Arcadian…
Despite being oddly paced and uncertain of its dedication to seriousness, MiB3 is an enjoyable watch and proof that the series deserves renewed attention. If Sonnenfeld wanted to scrap his two leads and transition this into a live-action TV series, I think he'd find greater success. The monster-of-the-week format needs a new champion, and after neatly wrapping up the major arc of the J/K chapter, it's time to explore this elaborately constructed world through new eyes.
And a special thanks to Hollywood. I'm thankful that between Stuhlbarg and Cabin in the Woods' Fran Kranz, this has been the summer of the stoner hero. Looking forward to the future of that trope.