Back in Black
Waiting for Men in Black III to start at a screening Tuesday night, I pondered the reason for its very existence. It had been so long since I’d seen the first two movies that I couldn’t begin to tell you the plot of either one. And more than I remembered whether or not I liked the first one, I remembered that I hated the second one. How long ago was that?
Was the new one going to be a true sequel, or a “reimagining” for a “new generation”. (It seemed too soon for a re-boot, but then look at Spider-man.) Wasn’t this one of those movies that had been talked about for years, like Ghostbusters III, but the script was never good enough to attract the original stars? Is the concept of Men in Black even relevant in 2012?
In case you share any of my concerns, the original Men in Black was released 15 years ago during the summer of 1997. It grossed nearly $251 million, second only to a little movie called Titanic (which grossed more than twice that amount). A sequel was a no-brainer. Men in Black II was released the same weekend five years later, during the summer of 2002. It grossed significantly less than its predecessor and, at $190 million, was the fifth highest-grossing movie of the year. That is nothing to dismiss, but definitely a downward trend.
More telling than box office from 10 and 15 years ago, is the cumulative approval ratings for the movies on Rotten Tomatoes. Men in Black holds a 91% approval rating, while Men in Black II holds merely a 39%. Had things gone better for part two, the timing now would actually be right for a part four. Instead, on the cusp of summer 2012, it’s just now Men in Black III. Was the extra time used wisely to produce a quality summer movie? Or is the idea simply too outdated to revisit a decade later?
The first part of Men in Black undoubtedly (and unfortunately) indicates the latter. No one in the audience laughed at the jokes! It’s not that they are groaners, but they’re just not funny. The movie does a pretty good job of balancing the characters and situations for both those familiar and unfamiliar with them, so I don’t blame the overall plotting. It just seems to me a perfect case where they could have added an additional screenwriter to punch up the gags.
Credited onscreen to Etan Cohen (not to be confused with Coen brother, Ethan), it’s overall a clever story. In fact, the idea of Agent J (Will Smith) travelling back in time to prevent the murder of Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) is proven a brilliant idea when we see the younger version of Jones in the form of actor Josh Brolin. Brolin is perfect as a slightly less-grizzled, 29-year old version of Agent K. In fact, it is with his first appearance that Men in Black III finally begins to entertain.
As things speed up, I caution you against trying to completely understand the story. Remember, it’s about time travel; thinking about it too much may make your head explode. Even so, there are obvious plot points that make no sense. Motivations, especially at the end, are never explained within the context of the rules set by the movie. Back to the Future this ain’t; no matter what you think of that classic, it’s at least pretty sound with its time paradox theories.
Although it’s part of the story, Jones is a real drag during his part of the movie. It’s much more fun to see him in his happier youth. What is it that changed him? Will Smith asks that question about 100 times, but I’m not sure I could tell you by the end of the movie what exactly it was. Speaking of Smith, he hasn’t seemed to age a bit. It’s only his shtick that has.
As good as Brolin is as Agent K, it’s Michael Stuhlbarg as Griffin who steals the show. Some kind of alien who can see (and possibly relive) all potential versions of the future, Griffin tags along in the last ¾ of the movie and gives it real heart. His face and eyes are simultaneously filled with fear and wonder. And his quickly spoken observations fuel the imaginations of the audience.
As much as I’m nitpicking, I must admit that Men in Black III is an enjoyable enough movie. Director Barry Sonnenfeld’s camera is as fluid as ever and the movie is the second one I’ve seen this year where the 3D is actually quite effective. The special effects, with a wide range of CGI tools not available 15 years ago, are fine; however, it’s details like Smith’s time travelling jumps (literally) that wow, not the assortment of crazy aliens.
Falling somewhere in quality between Men in Black and Men in Black II, I’ll recommend Men in Black III for the long holiday weekend. Besides, how many times can you really watch The Avengers? Give a surly old man and his cocky sidekick a little share of the box office dough.