Photo by Wilson Webb

The original Men In Black  wasn’t just an absurdly successful hit in 1997, it was also one of the finest blockbusters to slip out of the decade. The film is one of those rare blockbuster comedies that never lost characterization or laughter amongst the piles of special effects. With a script by Bill And Ted creator Ed Solomon, stylish direction from Barry Sonnenfeld, special effects from Rick Baker and the ILM wizards, as well as the fantastic headlining combo of a deadpan Tommy Lee Jones and a Fresh Prince era Will Smith, it was popcorn fluff with entertainment value to spare. There’s no stronger evidence for just how difficult it is to get than balance right than taking a peak at the film’s garbage sequels the abysmal Men In Black 2 and now the equally disappointing Men In Black 3. The charm and goofball fun of the original has vanished under inflated budgets, egos, and pointlessly expensive special effects. It took an absurd budget in the neighborhood of $375 million dollars to bring this mess to the screen at least five years too late and it’s sad to think that three decent blockbusters could have been made for the same price. Worse, even if two of those $100 million projects bombed, Sony still probably would have made more money than they’ll bring in with this stinker.

Right off the bat, there’s no way to ignore the highly publicized production problems, if only because it so obviously destroyed the final product. Sony was so desperate to get this threequel on screens this summer that they rushed the movie into the production without a completed script, then shut down shooting in the middle to finish writing. A collection of Hollywood hired hands and Will Smith’s personal writing entourage bickered over how to save the movie at the 11th hour and the result is a movie clearly written by committee. Scenes awkwardly pile on top of each other in a screenplay that can’t decide if it wants to be a straight action movie, a campy comedy, an emotional father/son story, or a time travel culture clash flick. In the end, it’s none of these and not even the tried n’ true Smith/Jones pairing provides much charm, with Smith now taking himself far too seriously to play wise-cracking comedy relief and Jones so obviously bored with the material that you’ll constantly try to spot him falling asleep onscreen (ironically, that’s the closest thing to suspense or anticipation achieved in the ramshackle waste of a pile cash that could have sustained the entire population several countries for a year).

Photo by Wilson Webb

The film kicks off with an evil one-armed alien named Boris (amusingly played by Flight Of The Conchords’ Jemaine Clement) breaking out of space prison with plans of killing off the man who put him there many moons ago: Agent K, aka Tommy Lee Jones. He puts out a hit on Smith and Jones’ alien hunting secret agents that the duo survive, but Jones’ quickly realizes was a warning at best. Boris’ actual plan is to go back in time and kill off Jones to take over the world. He succeeds and Will Smith wakes up the next day with an insatiable thirst for chocolate milk (don’t ask) and the only person who remembers Jones ever existed. Smith’s new boss (a completely wasted Emma Thompson who is there purely for exposition) informs him that Jones has been killed in the past as part of Boris’ plan to take over earth (which oddly happens right after that revelation, as oppose to in the 60s when Boris intended, even though he successfully killed Jones to complete is plan. Like so many plot threads in the movie, no one even makes an attempt to explain way). So, Smith is forced to travel back to 1969 where he teams up with the young Agent K (Josh Brolin doing a fantastic impression of Jones) to stop Boris and save the world from an alien invasion in 40 years…or something like that.

This is the point where production was shut down to rewrite the script and you can tell. The material in the 60s all feels rushed, boring, and predictable, featuring a character who can see all possible futures purely to tell the MIB the most efficient way to advance the plot at all times. It’s one of the least concealed writing devices I’ve ever scene in a Hollywood production and would be considered the worst part of the movie if the entire thing wasn’t comprised of confused chaos. Smith doesn’t seem comfortable wisecracking like he used to and tries too hard to appeal to kids. Instead of being a goofball comedy lead, he’s a wounded soul who constantly cracks jokes about being a good father like he’s acting in an episode of The Cosby Show with aliens as the villains instead of ugly sweaters. Jones is barely present, Clement is given nothing to do but growl, and the script is too bogged down with trying to create a plot of nothing to offer anything in the way of characterization or surprise. At times it feels like Barry Sonnenfeld gave up halfway through shooting, stopped worrying about whether the movie made sense or offered laughs, and just focused on making it all look pretty.

Photo by Wilson Webb.

Now all that said, I don’t want to make it sound like Men In Black 3 is the worst movie ever made. It’s not, it’s just a mess. Josh Brolin is actually a fantastic Jones substitute and would make a great partner for Smith if he had anything of interest to say. The special effects are also pretty damn impressive, particularly a few key sequences like Smith’s peculiar time traveling method that involves jumping off a skyscraper (which makes sense given that the effects guys were probably assigned a few pre-determined set pieces to work on while the script was being awkwardly stitched together). Most importantly, in an age of swollen blockbusters where even Battleship somehow clocks in at over two hours, the film whisks by at a brisk pace like all summer popcorn entertainment should. Admittedly, that’s all faint praise basically conceding that the only positive qualities of the movie are one good performance, some pretty CGI, and a mercifully brief running time. That should be enough to keep Men In Black 3 from sweeping the 2012 Razzies. Don’t worry though, this thing will still lose money and kill off the franchise.

It’s definitely worth avoiding (despite the fact that it’s in 3D, which some people out there still care about right?) and is an embarrassment compared to the original, but considering the absurd challenges facing the production, it’s remarkable that things even turned out this well. I’m certain it’s possible to make a good Men In Black sequel, just not with these actors this many years after the original. Maybe it’s time for a reboot. I’d gladly see a whole movie dedicated to Josh Brolin as a young man in black rising through the ranks in the 60s, but after this turkey lays an egg at the box office I’ve got a feeling that we won’t be seeing another entry in this franchise for a long damn time, if ever. The real shame is that we don’t even get a tie-in Will Smith rap single to justify the whole debacle. Even Wild Wild West offered that and any movie that makes offers less than Wild Wild West clearly has major problems.

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