Sunday, May 27, 2012

Break Out the Neuralizers - "Men In Black III" Review

Much of popular fiction's appeal lies in its exploration of the unknown and unknowable.  It presents mysteries to its audience and reveals the inner workings of societies and infrastructures that the naked eye might never experience.  Every turn of the page, cut of the film, or push of a button can serve to send its audience deeper and deeper into a whole new world.
One of the most repeated themes and images in film appears in the form of the mysterious men in black.  These well-dressed men appear inpenetrable and guarded behind their dark shades and formalwear.  They often represent agents of a secretive government program (see any James Bond film) or perhaps programs themselves (The Matrix).  Who are these featureless men and what do they represent?  It is a question that has almost grown stale with its commonality and yet still holds a powerful visual impact after all of its numerous appearances.
While most iterations of this common trope keep these characters on the outskirts of the audience's knowledge and perception, Barry Sonnenfeld's Men in Black addressed the identities of these outsiders head on.  The film welcomed audiences to explore the hidden world of these "galaxy defenders" in a tongue-in-cheek fashion that thrived on showcasing the extraordinary that was hidden in plain sight.  That was almost 15 years ago for the characters J and K, the odd-couple protagonists of Men in Black and Men in Black II; can Men in Black III bring back the action, comedy, sense of discovery, and heart that made the franchise so beloved in the first place?

On the surface Men in Black III has every element that made the original a classic: witty banter, gross-out effects, celebrity appearances, and a universe whose rules push the limits of sci-fi fantasy.  However, none of these elements are balanced in a way so as to create a tone or drama with consequences.
Men in Black was a film set firmly in the real world, drawing its laughs from the ways in which elements audiences were familiar with could suddenly become so alien.  In Men in Black III there isn't a single part of the world that isn't already alien in some fashion.  This removes the specialness of the settings and the importance of the secrecy involved in being a "man in black."  In a world as over-the-top as the one presented in Men in Black III its hard to believe that any amount of policing could possibly monitor and hide alien presence on Earth, a problem that plagued Men in Black II.
There is no preciousness to the proceedings in Men in Black III, as it attempts to reintroduce its audience back into its world though boringly familiar story elements.  Each moment rockets forward at an incredible pace, never relishing the experience and sense of discovery that each moment could provide.  There is no sequence that rivals or even comes close to J's discovery of the Arquillian that lived inside a puppet body in the first film, only to be revealed by a light tug on dead man's ear.  The slow reveal of that dying alien held power and wonder.  It got audiences to question what they knew about this fictional world and played to the innate fear of the unknown.  Men in Black III goes so over-the-top that it might as well assume that a little green Arquillian lives inside of every character.

This revelation would help to explain just how alien every actor feels in their roles.  Despite his indelible charm and on-screen charisma, Will Smith's portrayal of the wide-eyed J cannot lift the performances of the rest of the cast.  Smith's chemistry with Tommy Lee Jones's K is completely absent and in its place is hackneyed dialogue that seems to be trying its hardest to replicate a relationship that worked 15 years ago and never matured.  K is more of a stonewall than ever and J's attempts of shattering it go from understandably frustrating to downright annoying.
Even more dated is the frighteningly simple and uninspired use of time travel in Men in Black III.  When J is thrust back in time to save the life of his partner he finds himself in 1969 and dealing with a much younger MIB.  For awhile, the film plays with the concept of being a secret agent in the late 60's, but only in the most obvious of ways.  In a film with a universe as loose as this it is disappointing not only how uninspired the humor of time travel is but how boring the nature and use of time travel is utilized.  It isn't until the end of the film that Men in Black III even begins to try and take the concept of time travel beyond its basic function of transforming a character's settings.

Josh Brolin portrays a 29-year-old K, whose weathered face directly portrays the intensity of his lifestyle, and is solely responsible for much of the entertainment in Men in Black III.  Drawing from his experiences portraying George W. Bush (W), Brolin channels an uncanny Tommy Lee Jones, Texas accent and all.  His acting is the greatest effect in the film and completely sells the concept of time travel.
However, the creature effects, largely replaced by computer-generated images, seem lazily designed when compared to work of the past and its modern contemporaries.  Much of the film feels like it was shot in front of a green screen and that's probably because it was.  The effects aren't convincing for a second and beyond that they serve to weaken the actors' performances.  None of them feel like they are interacting with a real world, rendering their actions weightless and inert.

All of this is particularly annoying because Men in Black III's plot, at its core, had the potential to be a really fun tale supported by some top notch talent.  The franchise has proven that there are many exciting stories left to tell, particularly evidenced by the 90's cartoon, if the creators know how to handle it.  What this crew has assembled isn't terrible - it all makes sense and is kind of interesting - it just isn't particularly fun.  Even faced with the end of the world these characters don't seem entirely motivated to be returning to the action.
Men in Black III tries so hard to replicate a winning formula, but it seems as if the creators have - in the 15 years since the series first entry - forgotten what made the concept so special.  In the end it becomes just another entry in an ever-growing collection of film reprisals that just don't contain the excitement and energy of their forebears.  It's a film that will cause audiences to reach for their nearest neuralizers, stare at the red light, forget that Men in Black III exists, and then turn on the original Men in Black.  

For a full discussion of Men in Black III (with SPOILERS) listen to THE FILM GRIND!

2 / 4 Reels


1 comment:

  1. Nobody was really ever praying and wishing for the third film in this series, but it wasn't all that bad. I still had plenty of fun with Will Smith and I thought James Brolin's whole impersonation/performance of Tommy Lee Jones, was spot-on and added a whole lot more comedy to the final product. Good review Dan.