Black to the future: A time-travelling twist and a brilliant new baddie see Men In Black return to their alien-bashing best
14:23 GMT, 25 May 2012
MEN IN BLACK III (PG)
Verdict: Nearly out of this world
The law of diminishing returns is rarely more reliable than when applied to film franchises. And rarely has that decline between instalments been more marked than with the first two Men In Black films.
Where the first was a witty, visually inventive and sharply scripted celebration of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones’s genuinely delightful screen chemistry, the second was a sloppy, uninspiring retread, depending almost entirely on that chemistry for anything that remotely resembled a reason to watch.
So the omens for a third adventure, ten years after the last one, were not good at all.
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Firing on all cylinders: Tommy Lee Jones, left, and Will Smith in Men In Black III
Worse, the inescapably elderly Lee Jones is relegated to little more than a cameo, and the pre-release publicity betrayed that increasingly desperate and unjustified belief that being in 3D somehow constitutes a genuine enticement.
It’s also fair to say that, 3D aside, there has not been any exponential improvement in special-effects technology during that intervening decade, so any hopes of inducing the gasp factor or even raising audience eyebrows with astonishing aliens seem set to be dashed.
This probably explains why pop stars Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber appear briefly as barely recognisable extra-terrestrial life forms — a status which, for Gaga at least, seems strangely plausible.
So it comes as a rather pleasant surprise, then, when the action opens by introducing a wonderfully and immediately charismatic bad guy.
Brilliant baddie: Jemaine Clement as the new bad guy Boris
Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement, half of the comedy duo Flight Of The Conchords) is a one-armed alien possessed of a catchphrase (‘It’s just Boris!’) and a gloriously grisly gimmick (a murderous arachnid that lives under the skin of his hand).
Confined to a purpose-built prison on the surface of the Moon for the past 40 years, Boris is soon sprung (by Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger in a blink-and- you-miss-it big-screen debut) and heading earthwards to avenge himself on Agent K (Lee Jones), who was responsible for his incarceration and that annoyingly absent arm.
Director Barry Sonnenfeld has revealed in interviews that he watched the Back To The Future films several times in preparation for this project.
When Boris announces his intention to travel back to 1969 to kill Agent K and so rewrite the course of history, you begin to understand why.
You also begin to understand why the film’s posters feature three black-suited stars as opposed to the expected two.
Back to its alien-fighting best: Tentacles is one of many other world creatures to feature in the film
For while Agent J (Smith) has soon secured his hand-held equivalent of Marty McFly’s DeLorean sports car and set off in pursuit of Boris, K would risk disrupting the very fabric of the space-time continuum (or something!) if he encountered his younger self — and so remains resolutely in the present day.
The invitation to step into shoes as well-worn as Lee Jones’s and play a younger version of his taciturn character could easily have proved a poisoned chalice.
But Josh Brolin, in a performance that is at least part impersonation but none the poorer for it, pulls it off and imbues K the younger with just the right blend of new and familiar traits.
He also plays off Smith almost as charmingly as Lee Jones did in the first film and so ensures the heart of the story — the relationship between the Men In Black — never skips a beat.
It is a credit to scriptwriter Lowell Cunningham that familiar territory such as comedy aliens possessed of improbable physical attributes (most notably one with a detachable head that J employs as a bowling ball) subsequently sits comfortably alongside the new time-travel elements of the plot.
Indeed, the best jokes are probably the ones that most effectively blend the two genres: Mick Jagger suspected of being an alien sent here to impregnate earthlings; ‘most supermodels’ possessing a physiognomy indicative of unearthly origins; Andy Warhol being an undercover Man In Black charged with keeping an eye on the obviously extra-terrestrial denizens of his famous Factory.
Neither does Cunningham ever forget the protagonists’ heritage. Brolin is an altogether smilier K than Lee Jones’s, but we are teased throughout with imminent explanation of what might have rendered him such a misery guts.
Smith, too, reaches unexpected emotional depth with repeated reference to a father absent throughout his childhood that itself sets the scene for a dewy-eyed denouement.
Star performance: Will Smith delivers some genuine laughs back in his role as Agent J
But before that there is rather more formulaic and predictable business to attend to. Trans-generational gags addressing everything from sexual politics to technological advances abound, while a few knowing nods are made to aficionados of the earlier films and fans of the Back To The Future franchise.
A love interest for K, Agent O, offers not only Alice (daughter of Waking The Dead star Trevor) Eve a sparkling opportunity, but also opens the door for a characteristically consummate performance from Emma Thompson as her older self that effectively bookends the film.
If I tell you I can still sing the entire theme tune to The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air then you will know I bow to few in my admiration of Will Smith.
This is far from his finest hour but, rather like the film itself, he ticks all the right boxes, does more than enough to justify the price of a ticket and delivers more than a few genuine laughs.
Ultimately, though, it relies a little too heavily on a brilliant baddie and well-trodden comedy conceits to create much excitement about the subsequent episodes that are almost certainly intended to join this unexpectedly revivified franchise.
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