Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Men in Black III / *** (PG-13)

Agent J: Will Smith
Agent K: Tommy Lee Jones
Young Agent K: Josh Brolin
Boris the Animal: Jermaine Clement
Agent O: Emma Thompson
Griffin: Michael Stuhlbarg
Young Agent O: Alice Eve
Jeffrey Price: Michael Chernus
Andy Warhol: Bill Hader

Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. Written by Etan Cohen. Based on the Malibu Comic by Lowell Cunningham. Running time: 103 min. Rated PG-13 (for sci-fi action violence, and brief suggestive content).

I’m going to admit it right here and now for all you readers who might be fans of the “Men in Black” franchise, I was not a fan of the original “Men in Black” movie. I never read the Malibu Comic. And, I wasn’t a fan of Will Smith before the first movie. However, I believe it was that movie that started turning my opinion on Smith around.

The problem I had with the first movie was that the villain, while admirably portrayed by Vincent D’Onofrio, was just a bug. He acted like a bug. His aspirations didn’t really seem to rise above those of a bug, despite what the screenplay might’ve tried to suggest. I honestly don’t remember. I don’t recall much of a plot at all. The movie seemed mostly like an excuse to design all these CGI aliens that the heroes could vaporize into jelly with their comically sized guns and joke about it afterward. What I think was more of a secondary result of the script was the discovery of one of cinema’s classic odd couples in pairing the energetically witty and charming Smith with the morticiously deadpan Tommy Lee Jones as Agent J and Agent K respectively.

The reason the sequels in this series have been better than the original is because the exploding space bugs have become the secondary joke, while the relationship between J and K has become the primary focus. “Men in Black II” was an improvement over the first film, and “Men in Black III” is an improvement still. J and K’s relationship is front and center here, and with that cinematic sci-fi standard of time travel to fall back on, it is given fresh life with a remarkable impersonation/performance by Josh Brolin as a younger version of K. It also helps that the villain, while not nearly as three dimensional as the film’s presentation, is a much better nemesis than the bug from the original.

To call Brolin’s performance an impression isn’t quite fair. There is no hint in him that he’s poking fun in his portrayal of K in any way. He plays the role with dead seriousness and yet in a way that suggests a younger different man than the one that Jones has grown into. Only occasionally do you look at him in the role and realize it is not just a younger Tommy Lee Jones. The casting of Brolin is a stroke of genius for this franchise that is more about jokes than art. It’s also smart considering that Jones is getting a little long in the tooth to be running around blasting aliens. Setting the main story in the past with a younger K makes the action a little easier to swallow.

The plot is simple enough for a time travel story. A very bad guy named Boris, who was put away by K in 1969, escapes and travels back in time to kill K before he’s put away. This changes the present and J must go back in time to save K and set the timeline right again. It’s no surprise that a time travel story will have many jokes about how different the world was forty years ago. The fact that Agent J is a black character in a position of authority makes writer Etan Cohen’s job all that much easier.

It’s been a while since Smith has taken on an outright comedic role. He’s spent much of the past decade concentrating on meatier roles requiring more than just the Will Smith charm. This third film in the franchise is a return to form for Smith, and he proves he’s still got it. Most of the film is an opportunity for Smith to run his mouth and riff on everything around him. There aren’t so many funny aliens this time around. Those skinny aliens make an appearance and there are a couple of background visual homage moments for Frank the pug, but most of the comedy is given over to Smith this time out, and that works in the film’s favor.

Although Jones doesn’t play as big a role this time around, Brolin’s performance keeps his spirit throughout. A couple of other casting choices are nice as well. Emma Thompson takes over Rip Torn’s role as the director of MIB. She sheds some of her British airs to deliver a funny eulogy for Torn’s character. Plus, her hairstyle will have beauty salons busy for the rest of the summer. Jemaine Clement, best known for his work in the HBO musical comedy series “Flight of the Concords”, makes a better choice for the brute Boris than anyone might’ve predicted. SNL’s Bill Hader makes for a surprising Andy Warhol. And I very much enjoyed the meekness of Michael Stuhlbarg as the mystical character of Griffin.

“Men in Black” isn’t the type of franchise you go to for any sort of dramatic depth. You’re not going to find any profundities here. You won’t even find any transcendence of the genres involved. What you will find is a good time at the movies. It’s funny. Smith is funny. Brolin and Jones are funny because they’re not funny. The aliens they fight aren’t funny so much; but that’s OK, because this time around it’s about the two letters that come before LOL.

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