Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Men in Black III (2012)

Men in Black III
Dir. Barry Sonnenfeld

3 out of 5

Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) return in Men in Black III, providing another cheeky glimpse at the flipside of an absurdly unflappable bureaucracy - a vision that now seems prescient for evoking DHS and ICE as much as the CIA. The agents' newest assignment involves the escape of notorious alien criminal Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) from space prison and his long-simmering hatred of Jones, the agent who put him behind bars. But instead of seeking immediate vengeance, the baddie returns to 1969 to eliminate his nemesis before the lawman's moment of triumph. Adding time travel to a typically nonchalant outing of a creaky franchise is a move that raises more red flags than a Chinese battleship. However, MIB III bucks these negative trends by using the gimmick as an opportunity to explore the fascinating backstory of Jones and the MiBs (and the significantly less fascinating backstory of new agency head Emma Thompson), as Smith pursues his quarry into the past with an equally urgent motivation: to locate the young K (Josh Brolin) and pry from his taciturn partner the secrets of his professional past.

The unexpected widening of the familiar J-K character dynamic is crucial, as the convoluted plans of a scenery-chewing Clement amount to a lot of legwork for a relatively simple payoff. Diversions like Brolin's retconned romantic history and a noisy chase sequence on lame looking gyro-cycles (I thought of South Park more than once) pad the running time, but at least the film avoids the broad fish-out-of-water comedy that typically accompanies tacked-on time travel plots in big franchise sequels. A more welcome addition is Michael Stuhlbarg as another target of Clement's wrath, a precognitive alien who dresses like an elfin Sherpa and serves as the movie's metaphor for chaos theory. Launching into scene-stealing monologues about the infinite possibilities presented by a variable timeline, Stuhlbarg makes the burden of choice sound both exhausting and exhilarating.

Men in Black III is a film that succeeds in spite of its own clumsiness. It's at odds with itself almost from the beginning, torn between scenes of Smith shouting schticky lines like "You look like you came from the planet damn!" and its worthwhile exploration of loftier themes like the need for secrecy in long-term relationships. And while Barry Sonnenfeld's direction is riddled with instances of hand-holding for audiences too lazy to connect the minimal number of dots, the film's condescension is alleviated by Smith and Jones finding a bit of malaise in their world-weary space suits, Brolin finding a new layer to a grizzled interstellar cowpuncher, and Stuhlbarg finding a way to transform his walking plot device into the movie's most sympathetic character. MIB III retains the series' humor and CGI-heavy antics while expanding the emphasis on the heroes' cosmic destinies. It all adds up to a surprisingly pleasant summer blockbuster, the rare threequel that sees its existence not as an entitlement but as a storytelling challenge, telling us something new about these people that's cleverly integrated with what we liked about them in the first place.

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