The original Men in Black is one of my all-time favourite films. I loved it as a kid and I love it even more now. It combined schlocky sci-fi and social commentary with great special effects and wrapped it up with genuinely witty dialogue and the fantastic central chalk and cheese pairing of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. I don’t know if you remember the ending, but it was pretty final. MIB didn’t warrant a follow-up, but the all important box-office takings dictated otherwise. Factor in the fact that in the intervening 5 years Will Smith had become one of the most famous actors on the planet and a sequel was inevitable. Shame it was such a car crash, then. A sloppy rehash of a story, some god-awful writing and most insultingly of all, a complete ignorance of what made the first film so good all added up to something which disappointed audiences worldwide. So, a hefty decade later, we’re ready to do the same dance again. The big question is whether it’s a cheeky little foxtrot with an attractive partner or a frantic, desperate Charleston after you’ve just shat yourself. Well, it’s kind of halfway between, but before you have a chance to fully form an horrific mental image of that, let me try and explain myself as best I can.
The plot goes thusly: one armed alien biker dude, Boris the Animal (played by a virtually unrecognisable Jemaine Clement from Flight of the Conchords) escapes from his lunar prison and makes a plan to go back in time to kill K (Tommy Lee Jones) and get his arm back. After K disappears from the timeline, only his long term partner agent J (Will Smith) has any memory of him. J must then travel back to 1969 to prevent Boris from killing the younger K (Josh Brolin) and changing the future. Watching the trailers, I wasn’t convinced by the whole time travel thing. After the world the first film created where aliens live among us, we’re going back to the cliched ’60s? To pull time travel out of you arse and present an alternate reality is normally the death knell for any franchise (Shrek Forever After, anyone?) In the film, however, it sort of works. It’s not a runaway success, but it’s a passable plot device, rather than the afeared final nail in the MIB coffin. Splitting up Smith and Jones may seem like madness (and exactly the sort of shit that the second one pulled) but again, it actually works to the film’s credit. Josh Brolin does a scarily good impression of Tommy Lee Jones and actually brings some humanity to the gruff, grizzled character we’re used to seeing. Of the newcomers, Zed’s replacement Agent O (Emma Thompson) is decent enough, although we don’t get to see that much of her and the Mork-like Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg), a being who can see all parallel timelines and future possibilities simultaneously is a nice addition. Clement’s big baddie Boris is a fairly decent villain, but seems like a pale facsimile of Edgar the Bug from the 1997 original. His “thing” is that his right hand is home to a creepy insect-like creature that can shoot sharpened spines at people. What I don’t understand is why Boris is so fixated on getting his arm back. Sure, it’d suck to lose an arm, but he’s got the one that has the special murder bug in it. Did his other arm have one too? It’s never explained.
There are some great ideas on display here. I loved the look of the ’60s MIB headquarters, with the peerless Rick Baker showing off some of his awesome prosthetic creations. The ’60s gadgetry is also well thought out and designed too. J being black in the still struggling with civil rights 1969 is an interesting concept and close to the social satire of the first, but apart from a couple of scenes is largely ignored. The finale with the Apollo 11 is well done and I even liked the ending (which has been used as a stick to beat the film with by several joyless critics) which adds a genuinely moving aspect to J and K’s relationship. It’s a shame they felt the need to signpost so thoroughly throughout the film, ensuring I wasn’t accidentally surprised or intrigued.
My main gripe is that the film needed to be funnier than this. Most of the jokes fall flat and the (hate this word) banter between Jones and Smith at the beginning seems really forced. There is the occasional funny line or quip, but the film seemed frightened to let go of some of the entertaining jokes from the first that were ploughed into the ground with MIB II. A cursory glance at the background screen at MIB HQ will inform you that Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Tim Burton are all under surveillance as undercover aliens. Plus, the series favourite “worm guys” make their contractual appearance. There are a few cameos too, with Bill Hader popping up as Andy Warhol and Will Arnett giving an eager turn as AA, J’s alternate future partner.
Thankfully, Men in Black III isn’t the shitbomb I had prepared myself for. It’s not great (and for the people out there saying it’s the best one, I’m all for difference of opinion, but you’re just plain wrong) but it’s not terrible either. It plays out like an amalgamation of the previous two films and produces the mixed results one would expect. It’s simply average, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it really needed to try harder, especially in terms of humour. Chances are, you’ll probably walk out content, but whatever you feel, feel it quickly and exit the screen before the aurally offensive theme song by Pitbull starts. The credits just aren’t the same without a Will Smith rap over the top.
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