Sunday, May 27, 2012

NO NEURALIZER NEEDED: MEN IN BLACK III Is A Return To Form

It has been fifteen years since Agents "J" (Will Smith) and "K" (Tommy Lee Jones) suited up in black and carried their neuralizers and rounded up a giant roach in the original Men In Black and ten years since the inevitable but half-hearted and sorely deficient sequel Men In Black II. The duo and director Barry Sonnenfeld return for Men In Black III, which finds Agent J going back in time to 1969 to prevent both the onset of an alien invasion and the murder of his still taciturn partner (played in 1969 by Josh Brolin).

What differentiates this film from the previous two entries is the lack of a "gee whiz" factor. Where are "blink and you'll miss it" shout outs to the first two films, this time around the aliens and technology take a back seat to the relationships in the film. The plot borrows heavily not only from other similar time travel stories but also from another Steven Spielberg produced franchise, Back To The Future. Like that film series, the first two films center on Will Smith's fast talking Agent J. However, like BTTF III (and despite Will Smith's top billing and the fact that he's almost in every scene of the film), MIB III shifts the focus to Agent K, who is the target of Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement, looking like a cross between the late Randy Savage and the "Lobo" character in DC Comics). In the present day scenes, Jones is even more gruffly crotchety than ever before. However, his character has even more nuance than in previous portrayals (especially in the second film, wherein he seemed to be phoning his performance in from Bermuda). This performance makes for an uncomfortable first act (complete with an extended sequence in a Chinese restaurant that gives one pause to enter one again).  However, once Agent J literally time jumps to 1969 does the movie kick into high gear.

This film would fall apart if not for the uncanny performance of Josh Brolin as the younger Agent K. Reportedly, during their filming of No Country For Old Men, Brolin would study then mimic the mannerisms of fellow Texan Jones to the amusement of cast and crew, including Jones himself. This mimicry serves in good stead as Brolin becomes Jones in every gesture and nuance, verbal and non-verbal. He walks a tightrope that could easily fall into caricature and succeeds in maintaining a perfect balance.* His performance alone is worth the price of admission.  His K is much lighter, witty and romantic which leaves the audience asking why K turns out to be such a sour puss in the film. The film poignantly provides the answer. "Poignant" is not a word one would ascribe to this film series, but then this is not a run of the mills, paint by numbers sequel. Though there is some serious retconning going on, the film brings the series full circle in a satisfying manner.

The performances are entertaining. Outside of the aforementioned trifecta of Smith, Jones and Brolin, Clement as "Boris" is perhaps the most ridiculous yet menacing MIB villain to date. He is sadistic vengeance and the character's interpretation is appropriate to the stakes at risk in the film. Emma Thompson as new MIB director "O" shows an adroitness with deadpan comedy, though her character's inclusion is more than just a replacement for an unavailable Rip Torn. This is "K"'s film, and she adds to it. Also of note is Michael Stuhlbarg as "Griffin", a soothsaying human unicorn (don't ask), who is the key to keeping both the Earth safe and K alive. His character is a catalyst for the action as well as both prophet and doomsayer. His innocent and cryptic declarations ratcheting up the suspense to the point that one wonders whether either one of the MIBs will survive. The climax, which takes place at Cape Canaveral during the launch to the moon, is suspenseful but, as filmed by Sonnenfeld, also captures the hope and wonderment of the day, even if it is marred by tragedy; one that explains why Agents J and K are partners in the future.

Men In Black III is a return to the quality of the first film. While the concepts is no longer a novelty, the time travelling element gives it a fresh twist that allows for more depth than ever and, ultimately, a worthy conclusion to the series. If this is the last MIB film, it is wrapped up in a neat little bow and, unlike the second film, you won't want to subject yourself to a neuralizer to forget it.









*A non-sequiter aside: In graduate school I once wrote a paper arguing that "No Country for Old Men" (both in prose and film) was a modernized revisitation of the themes of William Shakespeare's "Hamlet", with the cinematic representations of Jones and Brolins' respective characters as "King/Father" and "Hamlet/son" archtypes; especially due to their passing resemblance to each other. Nice to see that MIB III gives unintentional credence to the theory.

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