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Review: Men in Black 3 (2012)

Men in Black 3 (2012)

Directed by: Barry Sonnenfeld

Premise: Agent J (Will Smith) follows an alien (Jemaine Clement) backward through time to 1969 to prevent him from killing his partner (Tommy Lee Jones/Josh Brolin).

What Works: Men in Black 3 is an efficient piece of filmmaking. One of the unfortunate trends in blockbuster science fiction and fantasy films of recent years has been excess; many filmmakers seem to mistakenly believe that in order for a film to be good it must be overlong and overproduced. The Men in Black pictures have been fairly lean and this third film continues that quality. It clocks in at less than two hours and in that time it keeps its storytelling brisk with action scenes that maintain a credible scale. Men in Black 3 also continues the fun of the previous films. The original Men in Black was a pleasant surprise that was successful because of the watchable relationship between agents J and K. Because of that relationship the original film has withstood the decade and a half since its release even though its special effects have not aged as gracefully. Men in Black II was nowhere near as good as its predecessor, in part because it absent-mindedly repeated the original but more importantly because the J and K relationship was flat. Men in Black 3 fixes this and puts a new wrinkle on their relationship by sending J back in time and partnering him with K’s younger self, played by Josh Brolin and the actor picks up on Tommy Lee Jones’ distinct delivery and mannerisms perfectly. The film also includes Michael Stuhlbarg in a supporting performance as an extraterrestrial with psychic powers and the actor is very good, making a character that could be annoying into a very sympathetic figure.

What Doesn’t: Men in Black 3 has a number of problems which often crop up in third installments. Third chapters of ongoing motion picture franchises must shake up the formula. Sometimes that is done successfully with a change in tone as in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban but many times filmmakers turn to gimmicks like the addition of 3-D in Friday the 13th Part III or the addition of new characters as in Ocean’s 13. Men in Black 3 actually applies both of these gimmicks with a 3-D effect in its theatrical release and a time travel device in the narrative. But nothing about Men in Black 3 is distinct from the previous films and this new picture is dogged by the impression that the audience has seen it all before. The filmmakers play it safe and so this film lacks the creative and chaotic energy that made the first film so memorable. The filmmaker’s conservative approach is most detrimental to its portrayal of the young Agent K. This would have been a golden opportunity to explore his backstory but the film constrains Josh Brolin to merely imitating Tommy Lee Jones. The time travel gimmick is also problematic. Time travel stories often have a delicate sense of continuity. Done right, as in Back to the Future, they can be fun and allow (or force) storytellers to come up with creative solutions to narrative challenges. The premise of Men in Black 3 creates a lot of continuity problems both within this film and across the Men in Black series but the filmmakers don’t even try to patch up the holes and the climax is a contrived scenario that doesn’t affirm anything and makes little sense.

Bottom Line: Men in Black 3 is a fun and worthy sequel to the original film. It is not mind blowing or extraordinary and it does not do much except retread scenarios and gags seen in the first two films but as a piece of entertainment it does the job.

Episode: #390 (June 3, 2012)