The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Men in Black III

Reviewed by Martin Zeller-Jacques.

Director Barry Sonnenfeld
Length 103 mins
Certificate PG / PG-13
Rating ********--
Filmmaking: 3  Personal enjoyment: 5

Photo from the article Trailer.

After a lacklustre second outing a full decade ago, it would be fair to suggest that no one was expecting much from a third Men in Black film. The first is fondly remembered for its breezy charm and effortless comedy action, and for letting Tommy Lee Jones reprise the ‘grumpy but inexorable agent of justice’ persona that stole the show in The Fugitive (1993). It’s a gem of an action-comedy, worthy of a mention in the same breath as Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Back to the Future (1985) and, most of all, Ghostbusters (1984). It was also a great example of how to make a blockbuster under the radar. Even though the film broke all previous records for a July 4th opening, director Barry Sonnenfeld was right in saying that, ‘One of the things that worked about Men in Black was that it was a surprise... We weren’t Batman and Robin, we weren’t The Lost World... Nobody was worried about losing their job if their beloved Men in Black doesn’t open’ (quoted in Tom Shone’s Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer). Well, whether by virtue of the passage of time or lowered expectations, Men in Black III feels like a surprise again, and it’s all the better for it.

The film opens with the kind of sequence that made Sonnenfeld’s reputation in The Addams Family (1991) and its sequel, mixing the grotesque and the comedic in just the right proportions with a breakout from a high-security lunar prison. The wibbly pink confection carried into the prison for galactic super-criminal Boris ‘The Animal’ (Jemain Clement) by his thigh-booted, tattooed pen-pal (Nichole Scherzinger of The Pussycat Dolls), might stand as a symbol of Sonnenfeld’s whole aesthetic: overly sweet, obviously more than it seems, and faintly creepy even before it tries to kill you.

Once the action relocates to Earth we’re reintroduced to Agents J (Will Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones), looking much as we remember them, though their partnership seems to be deteriorating under the pressure of K’s taciturnity. Soon enough, however, the action picks up again and the partners are first thrown together, then apart, by Boris the Animal’s plot to remove K from the timeline. J is thus forced to travel back in time to the Sixties and team up with a younger version of his partner (Josh Brolin as a less time-worn, but still craggy, K) in order to rescue the future from a catastrophic alien invasion. Sticklers for tightly constructed plots are likely to find something wanting in the scenario. (If Boris kills K forty years in the past, why does his species wait until the present to invade?) However, the Men in Black franchise has never been about plotting. The real pleasure of the film comes from its deft one-liners, its casual disregard for sci-fi geekery, and its syrupy emotional heart. And if many of these elements are unashamedly cribbed from the first outing, that doesn’t make them any less effective here.

The jokes tend to be more direct and pared-down than in previous instalments. The MIBs still carry their neuralizers, but their fake-memory patter is sharp and to the point, hitting the expected gag button before the joke has time to wear thin. Many of the best lines sneak up on you, however. Keep an eye out for the toddler who, sotto voce, delivers the film’s best one-liner (I almost had a seizure trying to prevent myself from disturbing the whole cinema with a belly-laugh). Moreover, though the film largely avoids easy time-travel humour, there are also plenty of elaborate sight gags, from the Sixties-era designs for the various alien species in the past, to the scene in Warhol’s factory which elegantly skates the line between daft and delightful courtesy of a neat supporting turn from Bill Hader. Even more of the gags come from the film’s sending-up of various science-fiction sacred cows. The best among these are the exposition sequences, in which the rules of time-travel or the correlation between temporal dysphoria and a craving for ‘chocolatized milk products’ are respectively given comically lax and absurdly matter-of-fact explanations.

But the thing which really makes Men in Black III sing, just like the original, is its heart. The best line from the first film is Agent K’s response to Agent’s J’s glib assertion that ‘It’s better to have loved and lost...’ Without letting his partner finish, K snarls, ‘Try it,’ suggesting in two words a deep emotional core beneath Sonnenfeld’s feather-light pop creation. This film doesn’t boast anything quite as elegant, but at its centre is a drama about the fierce protective love between two proud men. Like the best blockbusters, Men in Black III has the grace to be as moving as it is exciting, and as sentimental as it is flippant. As a result, viewers are likely to be able to find whatever they are seeking from this film. If they want a frivolous entertainment, then it will serve admirably. But if they want something with the substance to honour their memories of the original, they won’t be disappointed either.

Alternate Take to follow soon…

This review was published on May 25, 2012.

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