Kay and Jay are back, but does a threequel a decade in the making live up to expectations? John Mosby finds it all a bit 'Meh' in Black..
The original Men in Black, released in 1997, was a fairly riotous romp that was in turns, clever, funny and full of action. Adapted from the comic of the same name, director Barry Sonnenfeld took the general conceit of aliens amongst us and gave us a tongue-in-cheek look at the shadowy agency and monochrome men that kept the planet safe. It was rightly a big hit and a sequel was inevitable. Sadly, the 2002 sequel was a misfire, not offensively bad but seemingly hugely opportunistic - the thrill of the first replaced by some tired repetition and dodgy casting (Lara Flynn Boyle as a villainous alien in a supermodel's body simply couldn't carry a joke or threat in the same way that the original's Vincent D'Onofrio managed with ease). The VFX remained fun, but the story was flimsy with many a joke repeated and falling flat.
A full decade on and we have the third chapter - one which seemed unlikely after the disappointment of number two and the passing of the years. Kay (Jones) and Jay (Smith) are still the odd couple, their relationship remaining static and stoic. As always they'd die for each other but find it easier to do that than have a decent conversation. In short, the years have had little noticeable development (which is, in itself both unlikely and frustrating from a narrative point of view). The only real difference is that Zed (Rip Torn) is now gone and his replacement is the no-nonsense 'O', played by Emma Thompson. An alien warrior named Boris the Animal (The Flight of the Conchords' Jemaine Clement) escapes a prison on the moon and decides to wreak revenge on the MIB who took his arm and freedom: Kay. However he's not just going to kill him, he's going to to erase him from history by travelling back in time and getting his own life back. Apparently succeeding in the plan, Jay must now travel back to 1969 and the days before the moon-launch to get history back on course. But to do so, he's going to require a lot of luck and the help of a younger sixties-era Kay (Josh Brolin). Chaos, of course, is inevitable.
Perhaps the problem with Men in Black III is that everyone clearly appears to be busy channelling someone else. Much is being made, quite rightly, of Josh Brolin channelling a younger Tommy Lee Jones. As a tribute to the familiar Jones persona - the original remaining at the craggy book-ends of the feature - it's both hugely enjoyable and uncanny in execution, the voice, mannerisms and general demanour expertly presented but with Brolin's own persona bubbling just under the surface. Jemaine Clement is hidden beneath several layers of prosthetics for the maniacally evil (though not particularly smart) Boris the Animal, but it's only IMDB and the end credits that will convince you it's not Tim Curry strutting his stuff. Michael Stuhlbarg (Boardwalk Empire) is Griffin, a quirky alien able to understand the different multiverse outcomes of every action and, whether intentional or not, is very reminiscent of a Mork-and-Mindy era Robin Williams, complete with wide-eyed wonder and touch of detached melancholy. Even Smith seems to be getting in touch with the character he last played almost a decade ago, as if not time had passed.
Time-travel stories almost defy you to look at them technically and dissect their logic, but even with that understanding, there are some very convenient and obvious holes in the plot - especially one practical obstacle that makes as little sense as it did in the most recent Transformers outing. Much fun is had with the concept of the story happening in the past, but equally there are some wholesale opportunities missed. There's the regulation jokes about attitude to skin-colour and a meeting with Andy Warhol, but the '60s are all too often reduced to a soft-focus backdrop for the production designers rather than a canvas on which to mischeviously scrawl. The VFX are as good as ever, but even in 3D are nothing to particularly phone home about. Even the sight-gags of possible aliens amongst us, remain predictable - screens glimpsed in the background include Lady Gaga and Howard Stern. Really? Whodathunkit? (Probably everyone).
Smith is able to carry the scenes he's in, but none are required to stretch the now familiar MIB routine. Tommy Lee Jones collects a paycheck but delivers no real empathy in an underwritten arc - the visage now looking more starched and botox'd than pleasantly weathered. He's supposed to be the heart of the film, but seems more like its aching appendix doing what the script demands with one eye on the clock. Ultimately the film is amiably safe rather than wholsale entertaining. It's an improvement on the previous sequel, but only in that it plays to those familiar strengths and an unapologetic sense of nostalgia that it never quite earns. As we near the end, we get through an FX-dominated set-piece and to what is meant to be a deeply emotional revelatory climax - see if you spot what's coming - but it just doesn't work: the film simply doesn't earn it, containing no real emotional extremes in any direction. There are smirks instead of guffaws, furrowed brows rather than tears, one-liners instead of conversations. It's all more Meh in Black... a decade late to the party and forgetting to bring a bottle.
Somewhere deep inside, like a benovolent alien parasite, something interesting is desperate to get out of the script, but if so, it's on the cutting room floor. Otherwise it's a pedestrian, average, shrug of a film, smothered in bright but aging candy-floss and easy laughs. It's the anti-Prometheus and while it will probably do well on DVD, it won't be acheiving any noticeable lift-off in a competetive summer box-office, even if it did momentarily knock Avengers from the top spot...
Men in Black III (3D) is on general release now from Sony.