Friday, May 25, 2012

Blast in the Past: MEN IN BLACK 3

Men in Black 3, like Men in Black and Men in Black II before it, grabs ahold of some ingenious science fiction concepts and proceeds to goof around with them for an hour-and-a-half. The main difference now is that it’s been ten years since we’ve last been inside the mysterious government agency to follow stoic Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) and motormouth Agent J (Will Smith) as they try to keep track of alien immigrants to our planet and make sure that they aren’t causing any kind of intergalactic ruckus. That’s twice as long as the time between the first film and its sequel. Has twice as much changed? Not really. They’re still out there, just one partnership in the Men in Black, out to clean up extraterrestrial messes and preserve the secrets of the universe from the unwashed masses.

This franchise is essentially a procedural, a feature film version of one of those cop shows that seem to run for season after season, the kind you might forget about for a while and then one day turn on your TV and find that the likable characters are still up to the same old same old. A Men in Black movie starts with a big bad alien villain, this time a creepy assassin played by a black-eyed, monstrously toothy Jemaine Clement with wild, scruffy hair, who gets to Earth intent on wreaking some havoc. Cut to K and J as they finish mopping up their latest case, inevitably having to scramble some pedestrians’ short-term memories in order to implant their cover story. Soon enough, the villain’s trail of destruction winds its way to Men in Black headquarters where heavy exposition is dumped on the agents, and the audience, by the head of the organization. (This time it’s Emma Thompson filling in quite nicely for Rip Torn.)

If the rule of making a satisfying sequel is to do the same thing, but different, then Men in Black 3 is the best of the bunch, or at least the best since the first. It takes the charming premise of the first film, which rests entirely on the wondrously kooky alien designs by Rick Baker (bulging brains, fish faces, wiggling antennas, prehensile tongues, and slinking tentacles all accounted for) and the off-kilter buddy cop chemistry between Smith and Jones, and scrambles it around a little bit. Men in Black II was too interested in rehashing instead of reinventing, spending a good chunk of its runtime resetting the plotting instead of expanding. There’s not much expanding going on here either, but the plot doubles back on itself in enjoyable ways and smartly puts its focus largely on the relationship between Smith and Jones. The story is all about time travel, a risky idea to introduce into any film, let alone a sequel, but here it helps shake things up.

The villainous alien starts the movie escaping from a lunar prison vowing revenge on K, the agent who put him away forty years earlier. Once he gets back to Earth, he finagles his way back in time and kills K, which sets off the course of events in the future that brings J into the past. It’s 1969, to be exact, which gives the bulk of the film the slightest feeling of being a very-special alien spin-off episode of Mad Men. (Was Jon Hamm or John Slattery not available to cameo?) There’s a groovy retro-futurism going on here, which gives Bo Welch’s production design room to give us the same but different. (I especially liked how the portable mind-scramblers worked back in the day.) The villain is roaring around on a motorcycle like he roared in from Easy Rider, while the film enjoys the opportunity to show off some notable 60’s elements, like papering the background with news reports of the impending moon launch and finding reason for the agents to visit Andy Warhol (Bill Hader).

Speaking of the same, but different, K is played in 1969, not by Jones through some computer-trickery, but by Josh Brolin, who does an impression so dead-on accurate it’s a wonder that no one’s thought of doing something like this before. He gets Jones’s unflappable squint, easy drawl, and the sly bemusement teasing about the corners of his eyes. But, since he’s playing a younger version of K, he has a bit more looseness and fun in his investigative technique (not much, but it’s noticeable). He’s a dapper man in black who’s so dedicated to his job that when a man comes frantically crashing into his life claiming to come from the future, he’s not too fazed by it. K and J go zipping around New York City and the movie is just like old times, except technically, for K at least, this is the first time.

I don’t quite know who to credit with all of these smart ideas. With straight-faced silliness, director Barry Sonnenfeld’s clearly the auteur of the series (that and Rick Baker’s alien designs are most consistent between the three pictures), but this particular script has a notoriously messy past, what with filming starting before its completion. The final product is credited to Etan Cohen, David Koepp, Jeff Nathanson, and Michael Soccio, and there’s surely plenty of uncredited input from countless others as well. It’s just that kind of movie. That the messiness of its creation hardly shows in the film itself, aside from some clunky scenes here and there, is a nice surprise. And whoever wrote into the film the major supporting character of a fifth-dimensional being who lives in all possible futures at the same time (a terrific sci-fi idea) deserves much praise. You know who you are, I guess. Even better, the great Michael Stuhlbarg plays him with a spaced-out, out-of-this-world speech pattern. He’s the film’s best creation.

Like its predecessors, Men in Black 3 is a movie with goofy gross-out creature moments, like the villain’s slimy, spike-shooting hand, and grinningly juvenile gags, including implicating several celebrities as secret aliens. It’s all so brightly lit and colorful. This has always been a series closer in spirit to Ghostbusters than X-Files. They’re big-budget, effects-driven larks. This one in particular is just so pleased with itself and relaxed. Despite world-ending stakes it’s all so laidback. You’d think there’d be more momentum, but each picture in the series has gotten increasingly slack. Still, that’s all part of the charm. I have affection for these movies, and I suspect that most who do will leave the theater satisfied. It brings the series something like full circle and the concluding moments contain a surprising note of sweetness and earned emotional payoff between K and J that retroactively gives their relationship an added dimension that’s actually rather moving. It’s always a nice surprise to find a late-arriving sequel that manages to justify its own existence.

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