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Back in Black

Satisfying sci-fi sequel puts a time-travelling twist on familiar franchise

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/5/2012 (1915 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Assuming you're wearing your 3-D glasses, kids, you may enjoy a rather marvellous bit of vertigo in Men in Black 3 in a scene involving Will Smith precariously perched on the Chrysler Building.

It's a great dizzying moment, all the more impressive considering this movie is a conversion job, meaning director and former crack cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld wasn't happy using cumbersome 3-D cameras and shot this movie as a 2-D feature; 3-D was added in post-production.

The three men in black: Josh Brolin (from left) Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones.

The three men in black: Josh Brolin (from left) Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones.

Will Smith


Will Smith

Tommy Lee Jones


Tommy Lee Jones

Josh Brolin


Josh Brolin

That is a clue that Sonnenfeld wasn't inclined to alter the look and feel of the Men in Black franchise. It retains its visual, wide-angle eccentricity and a cast of weird supporting characters, many with detachable body parts. Considering that it's been 15 years since the first MiB movie, that's admirable. If it followed the Spider-Man template, it might have been on its third reboot in that period of time.

But no, Will Smith returns as Agent J and Tommy Lee Jones semi-returns as Agent K. They are still in the business of keeping the world safe from extraterrestrial menace and keeping existing ET immigrants under wraps.

But a particularly hostile menace called Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement, seen in more affable form in Flight of the Conchords) has escaped moon prison and is intent on avenging himself on Agent K, who literally disarmed and captured Boris in 1969.

Boris retains a time-travel device and heads back to the past to kill the young Agent K. In the present, this event manifests itself by J waking up to discover all traces of his grousing, curmudgeonly partner gone. So he, too, accesses that time-travel device and makes the time leap (off the aforementioned Chrysler Building) to the day before Future Boris's arrival, only to find himself partnered with the younger but somewhat more affable Agent K (Josh Brolin) in the swinging '60s.

Where the second instalment was a bit of a throwaway, director Sonnenfeld and the cast find more to do here, thanks to a clever screenplay by Etan Cohen. Cohen's story adds some time-travel complexity to the storytelling, augmented by a character named Griff (Michael Stuhlbarg, channelling a touch of Robin Williams's Mork), a being capable of seeing all possible outcomes to any given moment of time. Suffice it to say that this adds an unexpected emotional undercurrent to the relationship between J and K.

Well, there's only so much that Sonnenfeld and Cohen can do, given that Will Smith is loathe to give up the smartass, wise-cracking junior-partner attitude. J is supposed to be a veteran agent; you would have thought he would have relinquished some of his cheeky impertinence by now. (The same observation holds true for Smith.)

Actually, it's Josh Brolin who brings true freshness to the franchise as the younger Agent K. Brolin does a rather flawless Tommy Lee Jones impression, but it is nicely integrated into an overall performance that's just different enough from Jones's taciturn turn to be interesting.

Another pleasure: the consistently imaginative alien effects conceived by Rick Baker. The sustained '60s flashback allows him to go sci-fi retro with the creatures of that era, but the real fun is in the details, such as Boris's wonderfully grotesque hand, which houses a scorpion-like symbiont.

The maddening requirement of the sequel is that it be the same -- only different. Brolin's turn and Baker's creations are sufficiently delightful to compensate for Smith's same-old same-old.


Other voices

Selected excerpts from reviews of Men in Black 3:


Men in Black III isn't bad, certainly not as bad as it might have been. But it's not exactly good, either. Mostly, it's something else: unnecessary.

-- Bill Goodykoontz, Arizona Republic


Enjoyable sequel with an engaging plot and superb performances from Smith and Brolin, but it's not quite as funny as it should have been and certain scenes seem to have mysteriously gone missing.

-- Matthew Turner, ViewLondon


The thing is still too loud and too big in many respects, but it offers some satisfactions that the average blockbuster rarely even bothers to imagine.

-- Glenn Kenny, MSN Movies


When even the most charismatic actor on the planet can't fake excitement, you know you're in trouble.

-- Christy Lemire, The Associated Press


Looks cool, seems promising and goes absolutely nowhere.

-- Geoff Berkshire, Hitfix


In this age of blockbuster bloat, Barry Sonnenfeld's willingness to wrap things up well before the two-hour mark, as well as his eschewal of sledgehammer product placement, count as gestures of considerable mercy.

-- Andrew Barker, Variety


Despite some good moments, Agents J, O and K are missing an E.

-- William Thomas, Empire magazine


It's better than the first one.

-- Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times


-- Compiled by Shane Minkin

Read more by Randall King.


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