Movie stars can be a vain lot. They love their close-ups, and often insist on having a say in how their films are made. History is littered with examples of performers’ egos bringing down a movie. “Men In Black 3″ on the other hand, owes a lot to its star.
Will Smith is one of Hollywood’s last remaining bonafide A-listers. He’s had his share of Box Office bombs, but he can still open a movie on his name alone. Call it being pro-active or call it hubris; Smith didn’t just want to front this sequel, he had to give story input as well. Now, conventional wisdom would point to this being a very bad idea. But in this case, it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to this long-delayed and highly-troubled production. Smith came up with the idea of featuring time travel. Nothing terribly original, yet from this one seed, it spawned two genuinely inspired things that have made this otherwise half-baked flick worth sitting through. And heck, even enjoyable at times.
The first is the 1960s setting. The very concept of the ‘men in black’ harks back to (allegedly) real-life government conspiracies from the 60s. Ever notice how the suits and the gadgets in this franchise all have that slightly retro feel to them? Going back to the era that kickstarted it is such a natural fit and no-brainer that I’m surprised it took them this long to use it. Third time’s a charm, I guess. As such, the movie only springs to life once Smith’s Agent J travels back to 1969, on a mission to save his partner Agent K from being killed by a vengeful alien. Like “X-Men: First Class” proved, there’s a lot of fun to be had mixing up your movie’s characters with key personalities and events from history. Here it’s pop art legend Andy Warhol (he’s really an MiB agent!) and mankind’s First Mission to the Moon (it was merely the backdrop to an intergalactic plot!). Most vitally, throwing Agent J into unfamiliar territory recalls his introduction to a whole new world in the 1st film and brings back that sense of discovery and surprise. Which was totally missing from the crap 2nd film.
On a purely visual level, the retro setting calls for retro aliens, and this is a real delight to see, even if you’re no aficionado of cheesy old B-movies. There’s just something inherently charming about a guy in a suit or heavy prosthetic make-up — and nobody does that stuff better than industry icon Rick Baker. The man’s creations are colourful, cheap and campy in all the right ways. Sadly, the scenes at the MiB HQ with the 60s creatures are all too brief, but to a geek like me they’re a major treat in an age where everything is done via CGI. Speaking of which, the visual effects are shockingly bad for such a high-end production.
The second great thing that came out of Smith’s time-jump idea is that it directly or indirectly (depending on who you ask) led to the casting of Josh Brolin as young Agent K. Now, his performance amounts to little more than a straightforward imitation of Tommy Lee Jones (in a glorified cameo). But what an awesome imitation it is! Every line delivery out of Brolin’s mouth, every scowl, every scathing squint, is 100% Jones. I’ve not seen a younger actor essaying an older one as convincingly or as satisfyingly as this since River Phoenix did Harrison Ford in “Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade”. The best part is that Brolin and Smith have a real chemistry onscreen, playing off our familiarity with their odd couple dynamic. They even manage to squeeze a chuckle or two out of the script’s general unfunniness.
Yes, the script is a mess. It’s a well-documented fact that this sequel went into production without a finished script, and at one point shooting had to be halted to fix the problems on the page. Looking at the final result, it’s obvious they didn’t fix a whole lot. Most of the jokes fall painfully flat despite the leading men’s best efforts. And in retro-fitting a backstory for both Agents, they inadvertently contradict previously established story and character points. It’s a case of trying to be too smart for their own good. The ending is touching — until you realize it doesn’t make any sense given the actions and motivations of the characters in the first movie. Still, it’s to Brolin and Smith’s full credit the scene resonates at all.
The rest of the cast suffer even more due to the weak writing. Main baddie Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) has a cool trait, hidden away in the palm of his hand. And that’s about as interesting as he gets. There’s an attempt to set up personal stakes and a sense of antagonism between him and K, yet it feels kind of half-hearted. By the time Boris gets his comeuppance, you don’t really care very much. Emma Thompson and Alice Eve as Agent O, head of the MiB organisation, is played as K’s unrequited love interest. But once again, it goes nowhere, and could’ve been completely removed without affecting the overall story in the least.
It’s quite telling when at a short 90 minutes, the movie still feels overlong and stretched too thin. Director Barry Sonnenfeld tries, but he was hamstrung from the start. Too bad Smith didn’t further exert his influence and insist on a solid script beforehand. The studio waited an entire decade to make this instalment, so why couldn’t they have taken a bit more time to get things right? Whatever the reason, they can count themselves lucky this didn’t turn out to be a disaster. This attempt at refreshing the franchise has instead revealed just how worn out it really is.
You made them look good, Will… but perhaps it’s time to put away those suits.