Breeze from the Past

Men in Black 3 (2012)     3.5/5

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld (Columbia Pictures)

When a franchise seemingly has nowhere to go, where do you take it? Men in Black 3, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld (who in contrast with most sequel-spawning filmmakers, has stuck around to direct all three movies), makes the wise decision to bring us to 1969. Luckily, with the power of ingenious casting, and a knowingly well-structured script by Tropic Thunder co-writer Etan Cohen (not to be confused with like-sounding filmmaker, Ethan Coen), Men in Black 3 manages to be summer fun with satisfyingly emotional undertones, even though it may glaze over the eccentric detail that made the first film an instant success.

That, of course, was just about 15 years ago, and nearly a decade since MiB‘s poorly-received sequel. MiB3‘s opening sequence, in which alien megavillain Boris the Animal (played with gruesome pleasure by Flight of the Conchords‘ Jemaine Clement) escapes from a large prison stationed on Earth’s moon, attains more sighs than thrills. But once our familiar characters, Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), appear onscreen, we realize just how much we have missed them, and how great actors, superb chemistry, and pure charm can make entertainment out of mediocre material. Although the narrative of MiB3 may seem by-the-numbers on paper, it soon descends into the clever aliens-on-Earth humor we have come to expect from the franchise, but with a newfound twist – we know about the MiB organization in our own time, how men and women with black suits and sunglasses help facilitate the activity of alien immigrants on Earth. But what about over 50 years ago?

We are taken back to an era when even an amazingly cool, top-secret organization had an office straight out of Med Men, vomit-colored fabric and female secretaries galore. We arrive there because Boris has traveled back in time to kill K, seeking revenge and attempting to off the scruffy agent before K has the chance to shoot off one of his arms … and put him behind lunar bars. Through “time jump” technology, J also travels back to ’69 to save his partner, only to find that he is played by Josh Brolin.

Brolin’s portrayal of Jones is what truly gets the audience involved, imitating his dialect and facial expressions with virtuoso hilarity, and allowing the character to be touchingly reminiscent of a much younger man, not yet wisened by the traumatic years to come. It is revealed that K had a crush on Agent O (Emma Thompson) back in his younger days, the woman who would eventually become MiB’s chief. The failure to develop this relationship, or even give Thompson’s character much of anything to do, is likely a display of the many rewrites done on Cohen’s script (by veteran screenwriter David Koepp, and for the time-travel segment of the film, Jeff Nathanson, a fairly recent, frequented collaborator of executive producer Steven Spielberg).

Yet MiB3 gets the job done; there is no abundance of humor or violence, yet it remains a well-oiled machine that still knows how to entertain. The gooey action arrives in specific sequences, including a terrific climax at Cape Canaveral, taking place just minutes before that fateful Apollo 11 rocket is due to launch. The laughs, meanwhile, are drawn mainly through Smith’s out-of-time placement within the ’60s, as well as the chemistry he shares with Brolin; we have no trouble believing that this is a younger version of K. In fact, the resemblance is uncanny. Smith is a fabulous actor, and in a time of Robert Pattinsons and Sam Worthingtons, it would be nice to see him re-exert a little of that ’90s box-office magic just a little more often. It would also be great to see Clement in a role not dominated by facepaint and CGI, allowing him to exert his acting chops on something other than the role of a standard villain.

It’s a bundle of fun to see J reacting to his surroundings in 1969, a year when an African-American man would be looked at funny for wearing a suite, or even pulled over by the cops for driving a car nicer than their own (minus the flashing lights). The problem lies in the fact that MiB3 doesn’t dig deeper. Sure, this segment has some clever references and situations (SNL’s Bill Hader even satirically portrays of Andy Warhol), but I never felt completely engrained in 1969. The film simply recognizes that the year existed, rather than convincing us that we have travelled along with J. I do commend MiB3 for not overdoing it, something that is all too easy to do with nostalgic humor, but for a film that went into production without a completed script, it is easy to sense this lack of a fully developed environment.

One of the principle charms of the Men in Black series has been the creature design of Rick Baker. I am therefore a bit disappointed in not only the lack of variety in alien species this time around, but also how few of any there are. However, Boris the Animal is an interesting critter, indeed, as is the alien character who lies at the heart of this film, Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg). It is through Griffin that the profound subtlety of Cohen’s script comes to reach us, in addition to a plot device that lends the material more unexpected twists than you may think.

Griffin is a charming character, but gifted with a dark ability – he can see multiple futures at the same instant, those both good and devastating, yet still lingers on the powerful hope that the human race may finally get its act together. We have had our ups and downs, and it would take quite a bit of moral analysis to see if we have improved since 1969. But the fact that Griffin still exists in J’s own time is a sure sign that at the very least, we have not lost the desire to better ourselves.

After a crackerjack climax, MiB3 surprises us with a scene that not only takes full advantage of the time travel premise, but also touches us by looking at the J-K relationship with a new perspective. It is a fantastic scene, and surely the most moving of any in the Men in Black series. This third installment knows its influences, culminating in a La Jetee/12 Monkeys scenario, and only falling a bit flat when J arrives back home. I was expecting a knockout resolution, similar to that of Back to the Future, but never quite received it.

The film is satisfying, yes, mostly because of the subtle delivery, clever plot design, and consistently awesome effects. And of course, there’s Brolin, who nails a near-impossible task. MiB3 doesn’t elaborate on many aspects, even those it does correctly, but maybe that’s why it is so entertaining. What you would expect to be redundant is made fresh, mostly due to a lack of overindulgence. Besides Brolin, there is not much to make the film memorable, but it instills in us something sequels are almost never able to accomplish. We understand these characters, and the relationship between them, better than ever before. There’s nothing nostalgic about it. That, my friend, is progressive.

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