Men In Black III
Another week, another franchise, another empty 3-D spectacle being passed off as a worthwhile movie. "Men In Black III," the latest iteration in the series that sees Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones battle against Rick Baker’s nastiest extraterrestrial creations, comes a decade after Part II and very much feels like the sequel no one was asking for. Not only did the compromised "MIB" leave viewers underwhelmed, but it seemed to wrap up any major "questions" the series may have left its fans asking. But indeed, the last film brought in money, so Hollywood can’t allow Part III to go unmade - not when all manner of puns about "Part III in 3-D" would go to waste otherwise.
So it comes as no surprise that the third film (nor the third dimension) doesn’t add anything to the already played-out concept. A shift-in-time does, however, provide the film with its sole moments of freshness. Our villain, the time-traveling Boris the Animal, is broken out of Moon-jail by a young vixen who is murdered and never mentioned again (but more on the untied plot threads later.) He travels back to the 60s to kill the man who took his arm before he can complete the act of violent amputation - none other than Tommy Lee Jones’ Agent K. Due to some sort of bro-mantic symbiosis in their bodes, Will Smith’s Agent J can sense that the space-time continuum has been shifted to erase the last 40 years of K (seriously) so he travels back to the late 60’s to prevent both Boris’ (the 60s version, dressed like Dennis Hopper in "Easy Rider," and the time-traveling one-armed 2012 version) from eliminating his suddenly youthful friend.
Which brings me, finally, to the aforementioned surge of inspiration: the younger K is played by the preeminent grumpy actor of this generation, and now surely the heir to Jones’ position as the king of surliness in modern Hollywood, Mr. Josh Brolin ("No Country for Old Men," "True Grit," "Grindhouse.") It’s hard-to-believe, but Brolin doesn’t just give a funny performance here (though I suppose watching him ape Jones’ mannerisms and speaking tics with scary accuracy is worth the price of admission alone): he embodies all the hate, anger, and closed-off independence of the older Jones, while giving the grumpy one-liners a youthful spark that really shows the character as more than a one-note archetypal bastard. Late in the game, "Men in Black III" makes a grab for gravitas that the previous entries never aspired to, and it’s the grounded, loving portrayal from Brolin that gives it even the tiniest feeling of worthwhile emotion.
And speaking of false gravitas, the "Men in Black" series has proven itself once again as the most wasteful of all big-budget franchises; perhaps even more than Michael Bay’s "Transformers" series. I could go on for hours about the immense talents being wasted behind the camera - the already-mentioned special effects legend Rick Baker, cinematographer Bill Pope ("Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," "The Matrix"), composer Danny Elfman (basically all of Tim Burton’s movies,) and too many more to mention - but it’s the sad waste of so many great actors that saddens me most.
It’s hard for me to claim that Jones is being wasted here, as he is hardly here in the first place: his scenes take place in one of three locations, most of the shots are framed from behind his head, and he displays the same look of disinterested annoyance throughout - I’d be shocked if he spent more than a week on set. And Brolin, as mentioned, brings his A-game for what amounts to little more than a lookalike contest. But it’s Will Smith that truly troubles me. Yes, I admit, he does provide some of the films funnier moments - one dive off a high-rise (for time-traveling purposes) has him showing off his abilities for manic-gags and off-the-wall reactions; achieving the comic silliness the rest of the film is so sorely lacking. Still, here’s a man who has shown himself in films like "Ali" to be one of my generations finest actors, and his first film in four years has him spouting winners like "that fish must’ve come from the planet DA-YUM!" Really Will, this is the big comeback we’ve all been waiting for? Decisions this safe should never be celebrated.
And there’s another misuse of a grand actor I’ve yet to mention - that of Michael Stuhlbarg ("A Serious Man," "Hugo"), who plays an alien that simultaneously sees all possible futures (ever wonder how life would be different if you had just done one thing differently? He doesn’t.) But Stuhlbarg, whose world-class depictions of subtle neurotic tendencies have won raves, is here for one reason: to get the writers out of corners. He’s constantly telling our characters "no, you can’t use [insert name of gun here] in this timeline, it’ll mess everything up" so that idiotic plot holes (like, "hey, why don’t they just use their state-of-the-universe weaponry to get by this badly staffed crew of military security?") don’t seem so glaring. In a film so rife with underdeveloped strands that it feels like a first draft - for one non-spoiler example, we never find out who sent the young girl to break out Boris in the first place (and not a single option makes sense,) - this is a device so transparent that it’s hard not to laugh at the screenwriter’s laziness.
In fact, the whole film is so packed full of strange diversions and set-ups that are never paid off (Smith is at one point told that the 60’s wasn’t a good time for people of his skin color, but it was an angle clearly dropped as the only black men we see in the past actually hold jobs as superiors over white men) that it’s impossible to ignore the oft-reported stories of nonstop reshoots and onset rewrites. The narrative of "Men in Black III" feels like a loosely improvised story an adolescent would tell a captive audience of adults, right down to the scatological humor and the character who states the rules of the story outright (I can hear it now - "But they can’t use their space guns on the army, because, um - because the spaceman told them they couldn’t!") If only this film had the imagination and energy of some 8-year-olds I know. Instead, you’re left as unemotional and uninterested in the film as Tommy Lee Jones is in the material.