May 25, 2012

Men In Black 3 (05/25/2012)

Lettergrade: C+

I recently caught part of the first Men In Black on cable and was surprised that the film holds up surprisingly well after all these years. I think part of the reason I originally liked it in 1997 was that it's essentially a straight ahead (albeit relatively thin) cops-and-criminals story with the added element of amusing space aliens hiding between the cracks of the world we know. Since all the original MIB agents were recruited in the 60s, they were all growing old and needed some new blood in the mix to keep the organization going... thus the recruitment of Will Smith's character, allowing the film to run a few plays from the "fish out of water" stylebook and to work in frequent smart-assed asides ala Bill Murray in Ghostbusters.

Mid-way through Men In Black 3, I realized that the reason neither of the Men In Black sequels have done much for me is because these are characters and situations that were never really designed to last much longer than that original film's 90 minute runtime. Since the first one was so successful, it was a no brainer that more movies would follow, but the closer look you get at the whole Men In Black world, the less interesting the whole thing is. Particularly once Will Smith is a well adjusted MIB agent, the value of having him in the part at all is greatly reduced.

This new one isn't nearly as aggressively shitty as 2002's Men In Black II, but whereas the first picture felt like a throwback to the big and cinematic Amblin pictures of the 80s, both sequels have felt a little more like TV movies in terms of scale and the quality of the writing.

The picture started shooting in November of 2010 with only part of the script "locked" in order to take advantage of some New York state tax breaks that were set to expire at the end of the year. The movie then shut down for many months in 2011 while Will Smith, director Barry Sonnenfeld, and producer Walter Parkes argued about what the rest of the movie should be. As many as six major screenwriters came and went - although only one, Tropic Thunder's Etan Cohen, ultimately received credit - and at one point Sony reportedly considered scrapping the movie altogether and eating the costs.

The resulting movie, in which Smith's Agent J follows an alien prison escapee back through time to prevent him from assassinating the younger version of partner Tommy Lee Jones, now played by a wildly entertaining Josh Brolin, doesn't feel as criminally slapped together as the above would imply. The picture is quite good whenever Brolin is on screen doing his best Jones impression, and it's surprisingly great whenever A Serious Man's Michael Stuhlbarg, playing a new alien who is able to see all possible futures at once, has a scene. Flight Of The Conchords' Jemaine Clement is unrecognizable therefore feels a bit wasted as the movie's big bad, and although the movie is amusing, it's rare that it gets the big laughs of the original or even conveys a similar sense of wonder or imagination.

Ultimately, I'm not sure that Men In Black 3 is a movie that has a good reason for existing (other than profits for Sony Pictures, of course), but as far as cash-grab sequels go, you could do a lot worse.

More thoughts about the franchise... In 1997, the comparisons were mainly to 1984's Ghostbusters and that's not far off, up to and including how terrible the eventual "part 2"s were for each (both of which happened to be made exactly five years after the first).

At the time, I remember people commenting that the film's 90 some minute running time was almost too short, a rare complaint for a movie these days. Now that I'm a little older, it's clear to me that they ended the movie just before things started to get stupid. Or to put it another way, one of my favorite movies as a teenager was Sam Raimi's third entry in the Evil Dead series, Army Of Darkness. The American edit of the film is around 78 minutes or so, I think, while the version that played in Europe is more like 94, containing many deleted scenes and extended sequences. Being a fan, I sought the longer version out when it finally hit the States, and was very surprised by how much less I liked it. The film at 79 minutes is taught, clever, and hilarious. At 94, it's bloated, flabby and borderline unwatchable.

There's something to be said for understanding what your A material is, and then getting the hell out of the way before people get bored. The original Men In Black understood this… II and to a lesser degree part 3 do not.

Check out this Hollywood Reporter article on how MIB3 started shooting without a script.

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