Tell me what’s wrong with this picture. A beautiful woman arrives at a maximum security lunar prison. It was built specifically for this notorious alien assassin who she just happens to be visiting. She comes bearing a gift: a cake. The two, dopey prison guards who greet her, when they’re not insulting her appearance, perform an electronic security check on the cake. Their advanced sensors don’t detect anything suspicious, so they take her to Boris The Animal, the above-mentioned alien assassin. He’s locked up alone in a vault.
After what has to be the grossest display of french kissing I’ve ever seen (Boris puts Gene Simmons to shame), one of the guards makes the foolish mistake of touching the cake. Out comes a rather nasty alien spider and, well, you can probably guess the rest.
I have a question. What is the point of having a state-of-the-art correctional facility, built on the moon no less, filled with electronically equipped security guards when all it takes to break out one prisoner is to do the old bake-a-cake-with-a-creepy-surprise-inside routine? Isn’t this covered in the training manual? Seems a little obvious, guys.
Such is the glaring credibility problem that opens the underwhelming Men In Black 3. Boris The Animal (played by the always Jaggeresque Jemaine Clement of Flight Of The Conchords) has a huge beef with Agent K (the always scowling Tommy Lee Jones). Back in 1969, the then-29-year-old secret government agent vapourized his arm and had him locked away, something he’s always regretted. (He wishes he killed him when he had the chance.) At some point, while in that lunar prison Boris befriended another inmate who told him about time travel, a controversial practice that ended with his imprisonment. They make a deal that The Animal has no intention of keeping.
You can already see where I’m going with this. Boris wants to go back to mid-July 1969 (around the time of the legendary first Apollo moon mission) not only to kill Agent K and maintain his left arm but to also stop him from implementing an electronic shield around Earth which would prevent any and all future invasions from his alien race (he was supposed to be the last of his kind), something that doesn’t sit too well with the merciless invader.
After escaping from prison (without his lady friend) and landing on Earth (all without needing an oxygen tank), a New York electronics merchant hooks him up with some time travel equipment (think a much fancier alien version of a more circular-shaped smartphone) and then it’s bye-bye Mr. Cranky. Soon after, Agent Jay (the sadly unfunny and condescending Will Smith) is shocked to discover at work that his longtime partner is dead. (Will Arnett has a disappointing cameo as J’s overly chatty new partner who he encounters in an elevator.) He’s also been having sudden, weird cravings for chocolate milk.
As his new boss, Agent O (a badly misused Emma Thompson), explains, someone’s been monkeying around with the space-time continuum and it’s affecting J’s brain. (How come no one else experiences this and what does this have to do with one’s drinking habits?) Having just learned about the history between Boris and K through a talking computer file, J finds the exact same New York electronics merchant, gets hooked up with the exact same time travel equipment and is horrified to learn how he actually gets to go back to 1969.
He literally has to “time jump” which involves jumping off the edge of a skyscraper and moving his finger through a green laser on the alien smartphone with expert precision after reaching a certain low level. (Timing is everything.) It’s easily the best sequence in the film; genuinely exciting, inventive and with a nice pay-off at the end. What a shame the rest of the film feels so routine and witless (although there are a couple of very modest chuckles).
Despite being told he can’t interact with the younger Agent K (a perfectly cast Josh Brolin who deserves better dialogue), they end up meeting anyway at Coney Island where his suspicious, future partner takes him in for questioning after a fruitless encounter with Boris. While in the 60s version of MIB headquarters, we learn that K and O are romantically involved. By 2012, for some unknown reason, they’re just co-workers. (Guess that’s being saved for the fourth film. Blech.)
Once J convinces the younger K about what’s going on (even as a young guy the latter always catches the former lying), they have 19 hours to stop not one but two Borises from changing the course of history. Helping them is Griffin (unamusing Robin Williams look-a-like Michael Stuhlbarg), an alien soothsayer they meet at a party who is so overwhelmed with possible scenarios of the future it’s all he ever talks about.
Gee, what are the chances they’ll fail in their monumental task?
Unlike many, I’ve never been a big supporter of this overrated franchise. From the first film onward, the interactions between Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith have lacked the kind of comedic zip crucial for buddy pictures like this to work. Plus, the constant source of their professional tension is always the same in every movie. Smith finds the country music-lovin’ Jones overly secretive, domineering, old and crabby while Jones wishes his overly eager, sarcastic young partner embraced silence. It’s time to come up with some new jokes.
And then there’s the alien stuff. In this movie, Boris The Animal (“It’s just Boris!”) is a great looking character with a unique way of killing people (he shoots sharp, little arrows or spikes from his hands). But he’s not very interesting, personality-wise, nor particularly unlikable, despite how he treats people in the opening scene (that’s no way to treat a Pussycat Doll, buddy!). And what’s with his lame catchphrase, “Let’s agree to disagree”? Weak. He just doesn’t measure up as a villain.
Yes, the special effects are tremendous. They always have been in this series. Yes, the gadgetry is cool. Who wouldn’t love to have any of those cool weapons? Yes, the inclusions of The Velvet Underground’s I’m Waiting For The Man and The Rolling Stones’ 2000 Light Years From Home are sly and welcome. But the comedy remains putrid. Consider J’s desperate riffing on O and K, Emma Thompson’s painfully unfunny alien impression during the funeral for former MIB honcho Zed (the curiously absent Rip Torn), or the vast majority of throwaway punchlines that all land with a thud. When even SNL comedian Bill Hader can’t get big laughs as a covert Andy Warhol (just one small chuckle), you’re in trouble.
And what about that final act? Someone’s foot gets seriously stuck and looks pretty much immobile. Yet, mere moments later, without any resolution to that dilemma, a certain someone has somehow managed to get himself free so quickly you wonder what the big deal was. And what about that preposterous last scene? What the hell does forgetting a tip have to do with an incoming asteroid?
In theory, you would think that putting out one of these movies once every five to ten years would mean a lot more effort went into making them great as opposed to churning them out annually without much thought. The reality of the Men In Black franchise, particularly this dreadful three-quel, proves otherwise.
(Special thanks to Dave Scacchi.)
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, July 8, 2012