The Men in Black are back after a decade. But are they as cool now as they were then?
Can you think of a new movie with less reason for existing than Men in Black 3? What? Battleship? Yes, ok. Good point. Hadn’t thought of that. What to Expect When You’re Expecting? Fair enough. But still. The Avengers? Let’s not go there.
Apart from the urgent necessity of reminding us that Will Smith is a movie star (and the usual need to wring a few more dollars out of a profitable franchise), Men in Black 3 arrives in the multiplexes of the world with no particular agenda. Which may be part of the reason it turns out to be so much fun. You don’t need to study up on the previous installments or master a body of bogus fanboy lore to enjoy this movie for the breezy pop throwaway it is. Your expectations may be pleasantly low, and you may therefore be pleasantly surprised when they are exceeded.
The first Men in Black movie, a playful adaptation of Lowell Cunningham’s offbeat comic books, was released 15 years ago, and a decade has gone by since the sequel — called Men in Black 2 and every bit as memorable as its name — cashed in big and skyrocketed into the realm of bloated, tongue-in-cheek, special-effects-heavy spectacle. No. 3, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld from a script by Etan Cohen, starts out somewhat dispiritingly in that tapped-out vein, with a barrage of state-of-the-art weaponry, meticulously rendered slime and jokes that seem more than a little stale. There are no talking dogs and not too many references to the earlier installments.
We are back in the company of agents J and K — Mr Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, who both seem a bit creaky as they haul out the same old shtick. K is the grouchy coot, J is his motor-mouthed protégé, and they break out the neuralysers and the zap guns in their continuing mission to deal with the extraterrestrials hidden in our midst. They trade some banter with Emma Thompson, who plays their boss, and encounter weird creatures on the streets of New York.
* * *
For the first 20 minutes or so, nothing special is going on, and it seems that Men in Black 3 will be content to spin its wheels and collect its money en route through the usual overscaled action set pieces toward a superloud, planet-saving final showdown. The music sounds less like a score by Danny Elfman than like a score by Danny Elfman’s smartphone app, and it carries dreadful intimations of forced fun. But even as the movie carefully fulfills its blockbuster imperatives — with chases and explosions and elaborately contrived plot twists — it swerves into some marvelously silly, unexpectedly witty and genuinely fresh territory.
The first sign of promise is the early appearance of the interplanetary supervillain, a leonine fellow named Boris who is confined to a maximum-security prison on the Moon. Boris is played with thunderous mock pomposity by Jemaine Clement, a great and eccentric comic talent who has improved every Hollywood movie he has appeared in (Dinner for Schmucks, Gentlemen Broncos) and who has done New Zealand proud in Flight of the Conchords and Eagle vs Shark.
Boris and K have some history, a simmering grudge that long predates K’s partnership with J and that necessitates a bit of time travel. Somehow one of the oldest science-fiction tricks in the book — remember that Star Trek episode with Captain Kirk, Joan Collins and Hitler? — becomes an occasion for oddball inventiveness. The casting helps. Not only Mr Clement, but also Alice Eve (as Ms Thompson’s chipper younger self), Bill Hader (as Andy Warhol, of all people) and Michael Stuhlbarg as a sweet and spacey alien who tries to help J and K.
They meet him in the summer of 1969, shortly before the Apollo 11 Moon landing and in a swirl of nostalgia as naïve as Forrest Gump and as knowing as Mad Men, but not as sour as either. J has gone there to change the course of history, and also to find K, who turns out to be Josh Brolin doing an uncanny and hilarious Young Tommy Lee Jones.
“What happened to you?” J keeps asking his jovial partner, and the joke is both that the question is never answered and that it doesn’t need to be.
The action spins from Coney Island to Cape Kennedy (now Cape Canaveral), and the giddiness is spiked with metaphysical anxiety (thanks to Mr Stuhlbarg’s quiet, existential freakiness) and disarming tenderness. The first two Men in Black movies did some spoofing of the conventions of the black and white, cross-generational buddy picture, but the third one finds its way back to the heart of the genre.
It manages, in the end, to be touching as well as hectic and whimsical, and to send a few interesting thematic bubbles into the air, having to do with lost fathers, obscure regrets and racial reconciliation. So maybe there is a reason, after all.
“Men in Black 3” is rated PG-13 (parents strongly cautioned). Cartoonishly violent deaths of (and by) aliens; swearing
©2012 The New York Times