Back in Black

Once again the Men In Black are back, “protecting the Earth from the scum of the Universe” as the first movie’s tag line put it.  The unusual pairing of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones worked beautifully with the original in 1997 and the sequel four years later.  Now, after a ten year hiatus, Smith and Jones are back in Men In Black III.  Or, to be exact, it’s Jones times two.

Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) escapes from a lunar prison with the help of his girlfriend (former Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger in a short, almost silent role).  Agent K (Jones) had captured Boris over 40 years earlier and had deployed the ArcNet energy shield around the Earth to protect it from the rest of Boris’ clan of marauders, the Bogladites.  The clan became extinct while Boris was in prison.  K had also deprived Boris of his left hand and forearm while capturing him.

At the MIB headquarters, K delivers a taciturn, dry as dust eulogy for Z, the former head of the department who has passed away.  His place has been taken by O (Emma Thompson).  J (Smith) accompanies K to a Chinese restaurant where the food is much more exotic than normal.  K tries to get information on Boris from the owner, but then realizes they’ve walked into a trap.  During the fight, Boris kills the owner and faces off with the Men in Black.  Boris escapes, but not before telling K that he’s already dead.  J tries to learn about Boris, but K won’t share and the files on Boris are restricted.  K goes home, selects a gun, and waits for Boris to come after him.   Instead, Boris jumps back in time and kills K in 1969.

When J stops by to see K at his apartment the next morning, he finds an unknown family living there.  At headquarters, none of the regular employees knows who K is.  J thinks it’s an elaborate hoax, until O shows him K’s memorial.  O recognizes that J is showing signs of a temporal time shift – history has been changed.  That’s underlined when the Bogladites arrive to destroy the earth.  J must jump back in time, save K from the future Boris, and ensure that the ArcNet is deployed.

If you’ve seen a movie in this series, you pretty much know what’s coming.  There will be a throw-away shot that implies a famous celebrity is actually an alien.  In the first two, it was Michael Jackson; in this one, Lady Gaga.  (Well, they might be on to something there…)  The aliens will be plentiful, diverse and pretty gross, though the worm people featured in the first two films have only a cameo here.  While it’s well done, you’ve seen a lot of this before.

What makes the movie worth seeing is the time travel.  The visual is one of the more fun versions of leaping through time, with heavy emphasis on the leaping.  But the real fun comes when J meets the young K (Josh Brolin).  Brolin does a dead-on version of Tommy Lee Jones that’s a joy to behold.  They’re so close that if Jones nicked himself shaving, Brolin would bleed.  Another fine performance is given by Michael Stuhlbarg as Griffin, a meek alien who not only sees the future and past but multiple versions of them.

Once again Barry Sonnenfeld is in the director’s chair.  He keeps the story racing along until the end, and as with the other MIB movies the action scenes are well-choreographed and surprising.  The screenplay, based on the Malibu Comics series by Lowell Cunningham, was written by Etan Cohen (not to be confused with Ethan Cohen of the Cohen Brothers).  Cohen had also written 2006’s Idiocracy and 2009’s Tropic Thunder.  He does a decent job with the script, though it takes one twist too many at the end, aiming for meaningful but hitting maudlin.

Unfortunately, this movie may end up being another example of out-of-control film budgets, as we’ve already seen this year with John Carter and Battleship.  The budget for this movie is estimated at around $375 million, four times the budget of the original movie.  In contrast, The Avengers cost around $220 million, had a much larger cast, more plentiful and involved special effects, and is three-quarters of an hour longer.  While MIB III will likely do better than Carter or Battleship, it will have to be one of the all-time top grossing films just to break even.  The men in black may be gathering for the funeral for this franchise.

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