In a summer dominated by men in capes, spare a thought for the men in black. Despite the presence of Will Smith, the de facto biggest movie star in the world (albeit headlining a movie for the first time since 2008), the third Men In Black film has struggled for attention. Perhaps it’s because it’s been ten years since we last saw Smith’s Agent J and Tommy Lee Jones’ Agent K strut their stuff, or perhaps it’s because Men In Black II was — a couple of genius gags aside — utter rubbish, but it’s been hard to muster much enthusiasm. The only MIB-related trailer that generated excitement was the multi-storey monster Smith parked on the New York set.
The film’s troubled shoot hasn’t helped. A decade in development, MIB3 still started shooting without a finished script, and had to shut down midway through production so that returning director Barry Sonnenfeld, Smith — who came up with the time-travel idea — and a cadre of high-powered writers could resolve a plot that was threatening to tie itself in knots.
Their time might have been better spent punching up the frankly dreadful opening, in which Jemaine Clement’s Boris The Animal — a snarling, Brit-accented almost-literal Hell’s Angel who kills his victims by firing bits of sharpened bone — escapes from his lunar prison with the help of, of all people, Lewis Hamilton’s girlfriend. There are a few stabs here at the mordant humour that defined the first two films, but clearly Sonnenfeld felt that a credible threat to J, K and the rest of the alphabet gang was required — and the truly menacing Boris ticks that box. However, the casting of Flight Of The Conchords’ Clement — virtually unrecognisable under Rick Baker’s goop — is a curious one, given that Boris isn’t required to be funny. One Clement ad-lib, during an exchange with two tourists, aside, you quickly yearn for the shuffling weirdness of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Edgar-bug from the original.
As the first 15 minutes wears on, D’Onofrio is not the only thing you’ll miss. Following his much-publicised off-screen travails, Rip Torn’s Zed is dead, baby, given an early eulogy which allows Emma Thompson, replacing him as Agent O, a cracking comedic moment, but what’s mostly gone AWOL is the chemistry between Smith and Jones. At first glance, when the film’s plot was made public, it seemed an act of madness to scrunch up the golden ticket and separate the Men In Black, but it’s actually a boon for the film. Jones, whose screen time amounts to around 15 minutes, looks tired, and while the film plays nicely on that, there’s no excuse for Smith looking sleepy too, or their banter feeling so forced and drained of life.
K’s disappearance without a trace — only J remembers he ever existed, which is the first don’t-go-there plot development — forces Smith back in time in pursuit of Boris, and there the film kicks into gear. Not just because we get to meet Josh Brolin, giving the film’s best turn with a spot-on impression of Jones, but because Will Smith gets to be Will Smith again. Gone is the mopester of the first act, back is the smooth-talking wisecracker with a nice line in incredulous reaction shots when confronted with oversized ’60s MIB technology (a neuralizer the size of a small bus). A scene between him and a pair of knuckleheaded cops is the best thing in the film.
But it’s still something of a too-many-cooks muddle. Sonnenfeld’s insistence on keeping his movies short and sweet (he misses his usual self-imposed 90-minute mark here by a few minutes) is admirable, but means that certain characters are given short shrift (spare a thought for Alice Eve as the young Emma Thompson, who winds up as nothing more than an impressive hairdo that occasionally speaks). And an ill-conceived third act shift from the epic cosmic jokes of the first two movies, which repeatedly rammed home the point that not only are we not alone in the universe, but we’re infinitesimally insignificant, to a cack-handed attempt at wringing pathos and genuine emotion from a franchise which was founded on cynicism, just doesn’t work. In fact, there’s a disheartening lack of wit throughout — thankfully there’s just enough zest in certain scenes (a sequence at Andy Warhol’s Factory is excellent) to make the possibility of a MIB4 (perhaps with Brolin coming to the future to team with Smith and Jones) relatively palatable. In about 20 years’ time, obviously.