Tuesday, May 29, 2012

MEN IN BLACK 3 - Back in Black?

MEN IN BLACK 3 Review:

- Man, I still remember how excited I was back in the day for the original Men In Black film. At the time, I was a young geek obsessed with all things aliens and X-Files, and I was fascinated with the concept of the fabled "men in black" who were prevalent in popular UFO mythology, and who were a key factor in my all-time favorite X-Files episode, "Jose Chung's From Outer Space." I also remember how disappointed I was to find out that Men In Black was a tongue-in-cheek blockbuster, featuring a quip-happy Will Smith in the lead. I was a dark and brooding pre-teen who wanted a dark and brooding movie about men in black, dammit - none of this jokey kids stuff! Suffice it to say, when I thumbed through the issue of Entertainment Weekly with the MiB cover story (mailed to me at summer camp by my parents, who assumed I was excited for the film), I did so with the seething resentment of a boy who had no time for lame kids stuff.

Well, I've mellowed a bit in my old age. I'm now not quite so averse to a good tongue-in-cheek blockbuster if it's done right. And where once I was totally dismissive of the Men In Black series, I was now pretty open to it. I mean, you couldn't get much worse than the second one ... so, I was curious to see what, after so many years of franchise dormancy, a new Men In Black movie could bring to the table.

As it turns out, this might actually be the best film in the franchise so far. I'm not saying it's great (the bar was pretty low), but overall this one just felt, well, competent. There were a number of performances I enjoyed, there was a fairly fun premise, and even a little heart thrown in for good measure.

At the same time, the movie again sort of coasts along on Will Smith's charm. You'll smile, you'll smirk ... but really laugh? Not exactly. There is some wittiness in the script, but nothing too witty. And the time-travel plotline is handled decently, but the movie only does so much with it. There are no real Back to the Future-level twists - everything is handled in about as straightforward and predictable manner as possible.

As you probably know (and as I just alluded to), this is indeed a time-travel movie. I love time-travel, so maybe that's why I was a bit more open-minded going in. But anyways, the basic plot is that a nefarious alien called Boris the Animal (Flight of the Conchords' Jermaine Clement, with a name that sounds more like the moniker of a Russian wrestler) has gone back in time to exact vengeance on Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) by killing off his younger self and changing history to facilitate an invasion by his people in the future. Years ago, K foiled Boris' evil plans and left him minus an arm - and had him locked away in space prison for decades - and so, yeah, Boris is pissed. Also, Boris looks like late-period Macho Man Randy Savage, and talks like Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In any case, due to crazy time-travel hijinks, J (Smith) finds himself in a world where history has been changed and K never made it to craggy middle age. So J travels back in time, to stop Boris from mucking with time. Back in 1969, J teams with Josh Brolin as a 29 year old K (who looks about 45, but I guess that's part of the joke?) to track down Boris and engage in some serious male bonding.

The thing that elevates this film is the performances. Smith and Jones have always had a fun chemistry, but Brolin takes things to another level. For one, his TLJ impression is uncanny and just plain enjoyable to watch. For another, this is one of the best actors of our time we're talking about, so he's just plain good. His timing is spot-on, and his line delivery is pitch-perfect. I also really liked Jermaine Clement as Boris. Yes, the character he plays is incredibly ridiculous and random, but Clement goes balls-to-the-wall with it and makes it somehow work. Finally, Michael Stuhlbarg (from A Serious Man) is really good as an omniscient alien who acts as an enigmatic guide to J and K. The guy is just a phenomenal actor and should be in more stuff.

While the film spends a lot of time on the relationship between J and K, a lot of plot points feel severely underdeveloped. A romantic subplot between K and O (the younger version is played by Alice Eve) goes nowhere and lacks much, if any, resolution. Bill Hader makes a cameo as Andy Warhol circa 1969 that serves little purpose. And the big twist at the end produces some legitimate heartsting-tugging, but then is sort of just left hanging without the exclamation point you'd expect. Meanwhile, the 1969 setting is mined for a number of gags and plot points, though the movie's style never really shifts to evoke the era in any meaningful way.

Another interesting thing is that ... despite a time-spanning plot, aliens, and end-of-world scenarios ... MiB 3 still felt a bit small-scale to me. There are a handful of pretty-good set piece action scenes, but there is that mid-budget 80's movie feel that permeates through the film. Some of that manifests itself in a good way. I loved the creature designs by Rick Baker and the hand-crafted feel of many of the film's aliens. Sometimes though, I kept waiting for the movie to really dazzle and wow me, when the truth is, it never really produced any true jaw-on-the-floor moments. Maybe I'm just spoiled from The Avengers, but I didn't feel like there was anything bar-raising here, and some of the designs and aesthetics served to remind you that this is a fifteen-year-old franchise that's showing some age.

MiB3 is breezy, easy fun. Jones, Smith, Brolin, and Clement carry the movie and make it plenty watchable and entertaining. Still, there's not quite enough juice to elevate J and K to the blockbuster A-list.

My Grade: B

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