How long can a franchise lie fallow before it belongs to the past, and a sequel no longer feels persuasively of a piece with earlier material? At what point does the urgency of “What happens next?” fade into the idle curiosity of “Where are they now?”
There is clearly a question of time, not just quality. None of the Rocky or Raiders sequels are in the same league as the originals, but the two latter-day “sequels” are just in a different category from the earlier ones. With this qualified “sequel” status, I find, comes a level of diminished expectations that makes me go easier, not harder, on such films. They are more like reunions than continuations.
Men in Black II came five years after the original — clearly within the sequel statute of limitations, as it were, which only made its ineptitude a more bitter disappointment. Now, a decade later, we have Men in Black 3 — yes, with an Arabic numeral 3, not a Roman numeral III, a subtle disconnect that itself suggests that we have a “sequel,” not a sequel. Ten years seems to be long enough.
Alas, ten minutes is long enough to establish that “where they are now” is not that interesting a place. Happily, the question soon shifts to to “Where were they then?” — and the movie takes a turn for the better. It doesn’t approach the witty and energetic original, and while it’s true to say that it’s better than the lousy MIB II, that’s setting the bar low. Take it or leave it.
Start at the beginning. MIB 3 opens with a prison break involving a gratuitous bit of jiggle and giggle, some leering prison guards, a formidable outlaw-biker type alien villain and a high body count. The villain’s name is Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement of the comedy duo Flight of the Conchords), and for some reason he keeps agitatedly explaining that “It’s just Boris,” though he seems like the kind of guy who would say “It’s just The Animal.”
Clement is an intimidating presence, and, between Rick Baker’s makeup and the visual and sound-effects people’s work, he’s certainly icky and inhuman enough — but aren’t these movies supposed to be, you know, funny? Doesn’t anyone involved remember what a scream Vincent D’Onofrio was as Edgar the bug? Boris gets a couple of nice moments, notably a scene in which he plays dual versions of himself, but for the most part his performance is wasted potential.
Then we catch up with the Men in Black, still keeping the world safe from aliens and the knowledge thereof. There’s no joy here any more: Agents J and K have no chemistry; their relationship consists of K (Tommy Lee Jones) being gloomily stoic and J (Will Smith) ragging on him about his gloomy stoicism and wondering what happened to make him that way. It’s a plot point, of sorts, but that doesn’t make it entertaining.
A funeral for absent MIB honcho Zed (played in previous installments by the troubled Rip Torn) offers an opportunity for a whimsical alien rendition of “Amazing Grace” and an unfunnily taciturn “eulogy” by K. There’s a gooey scene in a Chinese restaurant with lots of liquidated aliens, and plodding gags about which celebrities du jour are not of this world.
As in the last sequel, the MIB lack the covert finesse of the original film, and use their memory-wiping neuralyzers way too casually — though this does offer a couple of the movie’s better jokes as J tries to make the world a better place while covering up close encounters. Still, before the first act is over it’s clear the whole routine is exhausted.
Just when one is about to give up, though, the movie catches a second wind. Just Boris goes back in time, and K vanishes from history, with disastrous consequences for the Earth. To set things right, J must travel back to 1969 and prevent Boris from murdering K in the past.
Without a doubt the movie’s best special effect is Josh Brolin as young K. He’s bang on as a young Tommy Lee Jones, and seems to be having all the fun that Jones isn’t. Of course, as he keeps reminding us, whatever happened to make old K bitter hasn’t happened to him yet. By the time we find out what it is, I’m not sure it makes any sense. (The convergence of Brolin and Jones almost makes me wish the unstoppable big bad were played by Javier Bardem, their No Country For Old Men co-star. (In other strange movie connections, I can’t help noticing that the physics of “time jumping” notably echoes the timey-wimey Meg Ryan/Hugh Jackman rom-com Kate and Leopold. Reviewing that movie, I complained that we see characters jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge into a time rift, but never see them fall out of the rift or wind up soaking wet in the East River. Was there a time trampoline, I wondered, bouncing them back up onto the bridge? Perhaps it’s more like a time bungee cord. Anyway, Men in Black 3 shows what it might look like.)
The other thing that works here is that J in 1969 is once again a fish out of water, which brings Smith back to life. The MIB of the period don’t know him, their technology is four decades out of date, and he and K aren’t sure how much they can trust each other. There’s an amusing scene with a pair of cops pulling J over for driving while black, and when J and K run into an iconic artist eccentric at a “happening” (the second such “happening” this month, after Dark Shadows), the revelation of who he “really” is is unexpectedly novel.
It’s all acceptably diverting, and not actively unpleasant like the 2002 sequel. There are no grand twists or revelations comparable to the truth about the “galaxy” in the original. There are some nice gadgets (when young K breaks out a pair of one-wheeled vehicles, close watchers of the earlier films may be reminded of director Barry Sonnenfeld’s strange preoccupation with tandem bicycles). What the film could most use, I think, is a wide-eyed uninitiate like Linda Fiorentino in the original or Rosario Dawson in the sequel — but one from 1969, which would offer a fresh twist on the outsider’s experience of the MIB’s nutty world.
Instead, J and K wind up with a hyper-initiate tagalong, an alien named Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg) who can see the future — in fact, too many futures, so that he’s never quite sure which timeline he’s actually in. He’s as entertaining as anything in the flick, but doesn’t provide that extra kick the movie needs to really work. Nor does a late attempt at a heartfelt revelation.
Ultimately, if I don’t quite recommend MIB 3 — and I don’t quite — it may come down to this: In its zeal to fill in some back story on its heroes, especially K, the film’s revisionism erases the one thing about K’s back story that mattered in the original: K’s entire career in the MIB was overshadowed by a long-denied love for a woman he had left behind — a woman he sometimes furtively surveilled in idle moments, and with whom he reunited at the end of the film.
I resented the way that MIB II ripped K away from his happy ending for the sake of a mediocre sequel. I don’t like it any better that MIB 3 has K mooning over a WIB named O (wasted Alice Eve in 1969, wasted Emma Thompson in the present day) — a half-baked romantic interest that goes nowhere and does nothing. Instead of adding to the original, this detracts from it.
All in all, I suppose I’d rather see the MIB go out on this note than MIB II. Then again, that may not happen either.
Based on the whimsical comic book series of the same name, Men in Black looks superficially like another Independence Day-style big-budget summer special-effects extravaganza with a catchy three-letter acronym. Yet MIB is smarter, leaner, funnier, and more human than most entries in the genre, relying less on spectacle than on the chemistry of the two leads and the wit of the script for its appeal.
Beyond more action and bigger effects, the sequel brings nothing new to the table. You’ll wait in vain for satirical "revelations" about the presence of aliens among us to match the wit of the jokes in the original about cab drivers or the World’s Fair. Instead, we get limp gags like the one about the Post Office being staffed by aliens. (Why? Is it a joke about postal efficiency? The "going postal" stereotype? The fact that they make rounds? What?)
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.