Shades of ’97
Off to the coffee shop once again, and I was moved to irritation and quite possibly actual despair by a sign revealing that the automatic ticket dispensing machine was 'TEMPORALLY OUT OF ORDER'. Presumably this means one of two things: a rupture in the time continuum had encased the workings in an impenetrable stasis field, or the band of happy wibblers who serve coffee and cookies and tea (and occasionally, when they can fit it in, show the odd film) don't know the difference between the words 'temporally' and 'temporarily'. Obviously this is a sign of plummeting standards in something-or-other, but, less obviously, my reaction was a sign that one of my gloomy moods might be inbound, something which warrants monitoring.
In which case, it was just sheer bad luck that the first three trailers playing were for Fast Girls, Rock of Ages, and Top Cat – the Movie. Individually any of these would have been depressing, but together they constituted a veritable double-tap to the soul. So it may have been the case that I was not in the prime mood to be receptive to the jolly SF-inflected japery of Barry Sonnenfeld's Men in Black 3. Still going to write about it though – we haven't done an Oh God Not Another One for a bit.
Ahem. Agents J (showbiz patriarch Will Smith in his first big movie for quite a bit) and K (Tommy Lee Jones, who was at least in Captain America last year) are still doing their Men in Black schtick in New York, under new boss Agent O (Emma Thompson) – possibly Rip Torn didn't want to come back, I don't know. However, a nasty alien (Jemaine Clement) busts out of a prison on the moon with the aid of Nicole Scherzinger and heads for the Big Apple intent on taking revenge on old enemy K. (And if you think the film's going to give you some kind of explanation for Scherzinger's involvement, you've got another think coming!)
The bad guy gets his hand on a time machine and pops back to 1969 to kill K before he can catch him in the first place – don't let the ins and outs of this concern you overmuch – conveniently leaving the only other time machine in the present day so J can follow him back. In the new timeline where K has been dead for decades, Earth is in terrible peril, and J has to save his partner for the planet to survive – and the best person to help our temporally-displaced (or, if you work for Odeon, temporarily-displaced) hero is a younger version of K (Josh Brolin)...
I get the strong impression that the over-riding motivation in making this film, on the parts of Smith and Sonnenfeld at least, was not 'Hey, haven't we come up with a great, strong, fun, original idea that demands that we revive this particular franchise?' so much as 'Hey, neither of us have had a proper mainstream hit in a long time –' Sonnenfeld's last movie was Space Chimps in 2008, Smith's last leading role in the bizarre transplant-a-thon Seven Pounds in 2009 ' – let's get together and milk the cash cow one more time.' Certainly I had no sense of people crying out for another Men in Black movie after Men in Black 2.
Then again I wasn't exactly crying out for a sequel after the original film. I seem to have some sort of peculiar blind spot or – and I know this sounds like the sort of thing I'd make up just to facilitate cheap gags – selective amnesia where the Men in Black series is concerned. When I'm actually watching these movies, I find them to be more than passably fun, with a lot to enjoy. Will Smith is reliably adept at the kind of wisecracking leading man role he plays here, the central concept is a strong one, the films are always visually interesting and inventive, there are always a few genuinely funny gags, and Danny Elfman's score adds irresistibly to the impression you're watching something smart and stylish.
But are you, though? Once I've come out of seeing one of these films it nearly always fades from my memory in a remarkably brief period of time. To be blunt, I think the great achievement of these films is in putting a smart and stylish gloss on what's really quite broad and knockabout entertainment. In this one, the trip back to 1969 permits some quite good jokes about the art scene of the period, but the films really shies away from any satire which is genuinely penetrating. There's one scene in which Smith gets stopped and searched for driving an expensive car, which at least acknowledges an element of societal tension, but to put this in context there's also some really dodgy stuff earlier on about Chinese restaurants.
The strengths of the series are all there, I suppose, and Brolin's impression of Jones is a lot of fun. More fun, it must be said, than Jones' impression of himself – he gives off an aura of being in the movie against his will, perhaps with guns trained on him from behind the cameras. His appearance is, frankly, as minimal as they can get away with, and one has to ponder if his claim that doing these movies is 'a hell of a lot of fun' is really sincere.
I feel I should also point out that the plot of this film borders on the incoherent, as is nearly always the case when a big movie talks about going back in time and meddling with events which have already happened. Can someone do a movie where this sort of thing is handled intelligently and in a way which doesn't contradict itself, please? In the end things are resolved with the help of a plot-device character played (rather annoyingly, it must be said) by Michael Stuhlbarg, and a plan which may seem vaguely familiar to anyone who saw the Doctor getting rid of the Silence on TV around the time this film was being made.
But, all this said, the film passed the time pleasantly enough, even if I was never under the impression this was anything other than nicely-packaged, eminently-disposable entertainment with – it would seem – no real ambitions to be anything else. I will be really surprised if this film makes as big an impression as either of its predecessors, given the state of modern cinema. On past form Men in Black 4 is not due until 2032, so at least they have plenty of time to come up with an idea which does the MIB concept justice.