BitDepth#837 - June 05

The third installment of Men in Black is a pleasant surprise after almost ten years.
Third time’s charming
Josh Brolin steals the show from stars Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith in MIB3.

The third instalment of Men in Black, the sly and knowing nod at classic science fiction, is making lots of money.
The franchise has never failed to, though the sequel, 2002’s MIIB, was more rehash than evolution, poking at the embers of the father-son bromance that fuelled the success of the first film.

MIB (1997) provided a bemused counterpoint to the studied seriousness of that year’s crop of science fiction films, deadly serious action-effects extravaganzas like Event Horizon, Alien: Resurrection and The Fifth Element.

Mixing really big shiny guns, a nod and a wink at classic sci-fi traditions and the exuberant banter of star Will Smith – which popped into sharp relief played against Tommy Lee Jones’ ramrod straight-man – the first MIB created something unique in the history of filmed speculative fiction, a funny, respectful, eminently watchable sci-fi film.

Five years later, director Barry Sonnenfeld shamelessly rolled a retread past an appreciative audience and got a bligh, even after an animated series for children that also mined the characters for situation comedy.
The film remained charming, but it had clearly lost some lustre and drifted aimlessly around in search of some real inspiration for most of its 88 minutes, substituting more for better at almost every turn.

Which brings us to MIB3, ten years later, and with the fate of a successful franchise hanging in the balance, what will Agents K and J (along with third time director Sonnenfeld) do?
The answer to that is a dramatic retooling. The film starts off like business as usual. A flying saucer on a crane, debris on the streets and Agent J (Will Smith), working up a lunatic social reform spiel, raising the shiny neuraliser to the curious crowd.

If you’ll just look this way, Sonnenfeld seems to be saying, I’ll make you forget the missteps of MIIB and reset everything. To that end, in a burst of bright white light, Z (Rip Torn) is gone, as is Jeebs (Tony Shaloub) and Pug, the delighfully absurd talking dog.

With millions at stake, the director blasts past our expectations all the way to 1969, shunting Agent J who as you may recall, is what we now call an African American, but who, back then, would have been known by a whole other name we no longer mention in public.

The movie bounces gently off this topic, which in the real 1969 would have played a much larger role in Agent J’s adventures in the past, and skips over other potentially troublesome realities in favour of a notion of that era that could easily have played host to Austin Powers.

Sometimes this turns out to be a lot of fun. Agent J, unable to convince a youthful version of Agent K (Josh Brolin) that he’s harmless, finds himself strapped into an early version of the neuraliser that’s the size of a guided missile.

The 1960’s MIB office looks like a Bauhaus version of a Star Trek TOS set, with women wearing little black dresses and colourful fishheaded aliens and glass bowl helmets aplenty. For a while, it’s all crazy delightful fun, with Andy Warhol as a weary MIB agent, a spacey time aware alien channeling SNL’s McKenzie brothers and a wildly over-the-top battle in an oriental restaurant.

Through all this flashy madness, part Star Trek, part Back to the Future, it’s telling that the most compelling thing on the screen is Josh Brolin’s inspired performance as young K.
Brolin deftly channels Tommy Lee Jones’ stony performance (Jones briefly bookends the film, looking really old) while forging it into a new, appealing chemistry with Will Smith’s J, giving the film a surprising and feisty heart.

Perhaps buoyed by this welcome turn, the filmmakers then proceed to go too far, almost drowning the film in bathos when the plot takes a sharp, clever twist at its very end.
Sonnenfeld missteps terribly here, taking a moment worthy of The Sixth Sense, one that makes the audience rethink the films all the way back to the first minutes of the first movie, and turning it into a Lifetime movie scene.

After all that time spent cleverly resurrecting a franchise long thought lost, you’ll want to slap the director for this errant bit of sentimentality.
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