Men in Black III (United States, 2012)

May 24, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Men in Black III Poster

The problem with some franchises is that the studios don't know when it's time to quit. The lackluster nature of Men in Black II should have been a hint to Sony that the Men in Black series had run its course. Now, at least ten years beyond the "sell by" date, along comes Men in Black III. This sequel is so lifeless and pointless that it moves beyond "unnecessary" into the realm of "unwanted" and "insulting." The public's lack of enthusiasm for this movie is matched only by the apparent disinterest evident in the production. Those who don't understand what it means for an actor to "sleepwalk" through a performance need only watch Men in Black III; there's no shortage of examples.

If there was reason to be bullish about Men in Black III going in, it was that the three principals - actors Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones and director Barry Sonnenfeld - had returned. But Smith gives the impression he wants to be elsewhere. Jones appears to be still playing his role from No Country for Old Men. And Sonnenfeld's work behind the camera is no more than adequate. The chemistry between J (Smith) and K (Jones) has evaporated. The quips traded by J and K have lost their bite; they're obligatory. I imagine this is how it might be if Riggs and Murtaugh were exhumed for another Lethal Weapon. There's so little humor in the final cut that all of the jokes were used in the trailer. It's sad.

The story involves time travel. There are two ways to handle this overused plot device: with at least cursory consideration of the paradoxes involved (think Back to the Future or Star Trek IV) or by employing a seat-of-the-pants approach that is more appropriate for a cartoon. No points for guessing which one is at work in Men in Black III. In fact, the screenplay feels frustratingly incomplete, with significant plot points left unresolved. (What it is the "big moment" that changes K? And please don't tell me it's the lame thing that happens near the end.) It's as if the movie went into production without a script and the filmmakers made things up as they went along. Such an approach can arguably work for a comedy, but Men in Black III is easily the least funny of the three films, skewing more toward sci-fi and action while muting the humor. The lack of narrative coherence, therefore, represents a major drawback.

Men in Black III opens with a jailbreak. K's arch-nemesis, Boris (Jermaine Clement), finds a way to escape his maximum security prison cell on the moon. Once he has returned to Earth, he tries unsuccessfully to kill J and K. Failing at that, he time travels back to 1969 and helps his younger self eliminate K on the day of Apollo 11's historical lift-off. Because he drinks chocolate milk, J is immune to the way reality is re-shaped around the temporal shift and realizes something had gone wrong. After a consultation with the Men in Black's new leader, O (Emma Thompson), J makes his own time jump. This reunites him with a much younger K (now played by Josh Brolin) and puts them on a collision course with both Borises in an attempt to repair the damage done to time. Or something like that.

If there's a bright spot to be found in Men in Black III, it's Josh Brolin, whose dead-on impersonation of Tommy Lee Jones makes the real actor seem like an imposter. Brolin seems to be having fun, which is more than can be said about the people sitting in theater seats enduring this shit. There's also something odd about Jones' make-up job. It's unclear whether it's intended to make him look older or younger. The actor is 65; we learn that K is supposedly 72. It makes no sense, however, that latex applications would be used to add seven years to Jones' age. The end result is that the actor looks like a waxwork from Madame Tussauds that has been left out in the sun too long and is starting to melt.

Visually, Men in Black III looks like it was made on a budget roughly equivalent to that of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The CGI is awful, the "creature effects" are about 30 years out-of-date, and the 3-D is an abomination. It's inexplicable why anyone thought Men in Black III would be improved by the darkening and blurriness that accompanies a poor post-production conversion, but that's the case here. All the usual problems with inept 3-D are in evidence. (The company to do the work on Men in Black III is reportedly the same one that botched Clash of the Titans and The Green Lantern.) Still, considering the quality of the project, this isn't a case where it's better avoiding the surcharge and seeing the 2-D version; this is a case where it's better avoiding it in any D.

Most summers, there's a sequel that underperforms relative to expectations. My money is on Men in Black III for 2012. It's hard to imagine how any movie-goer could legitimately claim to be entertained by this mess. The action is sloppy and limited. The comedy is perfunctory. The lack of energy and craftsmanship is shocking. It's a poor option, even as a temporary diversion. (To add insult to injury, there is no post-credits Easter egg.) Men in Black III is to this franchise what Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was to that one. It's hard to be more definitive about how this movie experience plays out.

Men in Black III (United States, 2012)

Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Cast: Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Jermaine Clement, Emma Thompson, Michael Stuhlbarg, Alice Eve
Screenplay: Etan Cohen
Cinematography: Bill Pope
Music: Danny Elfman
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Run Time: 1:41
U.S. Release Date: 2012-05-25
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1