Review: MIB3 3D - an Acronymical Acrimonious Anachronistic Amusement
It's almost forgotten that the first Men In Black film theatrical gross nearly sextupled its original budget fifteen years ago. It reaped financial rewards for its studio, and presaged other big budget pulpy adaptations like Raimi's 2002 release of Spider Man (rebooted this summer as Columbia's real tentpeg release).
The first MIB saw makeup genius Rick Baker win an Oscar, and garner Barry Sonnenfeld, formerly the cinematographer for the likes of the Coen Brothers, hit first blockbuster. Any other year, this would have likely been the top of the box office pile for that year. Yet that 1997 season is most remembered for another Spielberg production, The Lost World, when that sequel to Jurassic park took an enormous bite out of the Summer audience haul. And then, by the end of the year, a certain ship-that-sank film saw a generation of obsessive twelve year-old girls rewrite cinema history (not for the last time).
Still, the success of MIB bred an inevitable sequel. Even the most generous critics must admit that 2002s MIB2 (or M][B, as per the poster) was a tired retread of the original film. If you dig into the production of the first film, you'll see that a relatively complicated element of the plot was removed entirely, mandating that some of Baker's practical effects were replaced by CGI effects. MIB2 continued this trend of unabashed simplification, with a slew of CGI critters trying in vain to replicate the charm of the first film. Notable as well as that the conclusion had to be revised, removing a sequence involving the NYC World Trade Center buildings that no longer existed by the time of the film's release.
The last decade has not been kind to Sonnenfeld's output. Other than a slew of TV projects, his only real film that he served as director was the Robin Williams disastrously unfunny film RV. Will Smith too has been pretty hit and miss, the once box-office Golden Child no longer drumming up the kind of excitement that the films from his heydays in the 90s did. Tommy Lee Jones has turned to a slew of character roles of late, many of them sublime. On the set of the Coen's superlative No Country for Old Men, Lee Jones was set to chase Josh Brolin's character. Clearly Tommy's southern drawl was ripe for parody, and Brolin learned to do a mighty fine take on his costar's mannerisms.
Which brings us to the latest installment of the film that nobody really was waiting for. MIB3's biggest effect, really, is Brolin doing Lee Jones, established firmly in the trailers that the conceit this time involves time travel. The plot is convoluted enough that it becomes kind of meaningless after a while - suffice it to say, the film allows Smith to be a fish out of water in another time, soon after he struggles with a giant CGI fish literally out of water that wants to bite his head off. Metaphors, you see, come pretty blatant in a film like this.
Having not seen the other films in some time, there was a certain warm nostalgia to be back in the headquarters that I frankly wasn't expecting to feel. Production design has always been an exceptional component of these films, and this threequel is no exception. The designers particularly go to town when we're dropped into the late sixties. There always was a retro cheesiness to the industrial design shown in the films, but the time shift allows Baker and his team on the character side to delve even deeper into the quirks of that decade's aesthetic. Think Mad Men, but with aliens and spacemen walking around with fishbowl helmets.
Will Smith's charms seem even more dated than some of the sets, but occasionally there are flashes of what made him so charismatic the first time 'round. Unfortunately, most of the jokes fall with a thud, many being little more than groan worthy.
There are, however, some highlights: Flight of the Conchords star Jemaine Clement is a heap of fun, entirely unrecognizable buried within the fantastic makeup Baker constructed. His "Boris the Animal", in all its iterations, is a nice mix of creepy-as-hell and comic-book silly. Emma Thompson takes over for Rip Torn, and does an adequate job as the new boss. Alice Eve plays the same character in the other timeline, the chemistry between her and Brolin more than adequate. Even former Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger (and partner of Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton) makes a brief appearance, using her talents to full effect in 3D.
Bill Hader makes an appearance as Andy Warhol, showing once again on screen his dexterous use of character voices. David Rasche, another of the Coen slate of players, makes a brief and amusing appearance, but it's A Serious Man's (and Boardwalk Empire's) Michael Stuhlbarg that really shines when he's on screen. Another actor may have made his turn obnoxious, but there's such a warmth and sweetness from his performance that it's hard to find fault. Stulhbarg is joining an elite list of character actors that make whatever they're in significantly better simply because of their inclusion.
Visually, the film is a treat. Character design is of course excellent, and Sonnenfeld's eye (along with the maven of genre cinematography Bill Pope) makes for a particularly excellent 3D presentation. Carefully composed shots and brisk action sequences allow for moments of glossy Hollywood style, and even when the in-your-face, gratuitous 3D shots take place they're well earned. Some elements, like the "Grievous bike" chase, are pretty silly, but they're quickly replaced by more banter and fine character performances. The ending sequences at Canaveral are dizzyingly spectacular on screen, all without resorting to barfy shakycam or scattershot editing.
Sonnenfeld and his crew can't help but throw in a heap of Kubrickian allusions. From the opening credits in Pablo Fero-style scrawl, nods to Dr. Strangelove abound. The most esoteric is perhaps the CRM-114 scrawled at the entrance to an underground tunnel. I'm not sure what's worse, them putting in the Easter Eggs, or me spotting them on first viewing.
The misfires at the first two thirds of the film all kind of coalesce into a decent finale. I'm sure if you think about it too much there will be a slew of plot holes, temporal irregularities and other annoyances. Maybe it's the tribute of going in with zero expectations, but it all kinda makes sense, at least superficially. Nobody's going to claim that this is the most compelling use of the tired trope of time travel, but they at least have fun with the idea, and it allows the Brolin/Lee Jones duo to work their magic.
Whatever your thoughts of the closing "twist", the last act does a pretty decent job of bookending the series. The film is a superior sequel (not so hard, given the quality of the second film), and a nice wrap-up of the series as a whole. It's a satisfying enough conclusion that any further films in the series really would be overstaying their welcome.
For some reason, with this release I had so little invested in its return, I couldn't care less about all the stories regarding cost overruns, starting without a script, meddling by the leads, and so on. In the end, I had more fun revisiting this world than I had any right to expect.
MIB3 is dumb, flashy fun, and if you simply ignore its obvious shortcomings you may in fact find that being back in the saddle with the boys in black remains an enjoyable, frivolous ride.