Troubled third instalment has a trick or two up its sleeve
In Wes Craven's too-clever-for- its-own-good Scream 4, a character remarks that the worst of the fictional Stab slasher movie series was the one with the time travel plot device. Ten years on from the feeble Men in Black 2, this third instalment of the Will Smith/Tommy Lee Jones alien-busting franchise arrives in cinemas in modish 3D.
Rather alarmingly, it boasts a time travel plot device. Add a troubled shoot that was reportedly shut down half-way through so a team of script doctors could tinker with the plot, and expectations are at rock bottom.
That's before you realise that they've taken the, ahem, bold decision to pare back the main element that made Men in Black work so well in the first place – the chemistry between deadpan Tommy Lee Jones and perky Will Smith. Jones grouches about, pulling his signature hangdog expression, for barely 15 minutes this time round.
With so much counting against it, the surprise is that Men in Black 3 should turn out to be such fun. Sure, the plot creaks in places, and science fiction enthusiasts wanting coherent resolution of temporal paradoxes should seek their jollies elsewhere. But Men in Black was never about that stuff anyway; it was about funny-looking aliens being splatted while Agent K (Jones) and Agent J (Smith) exchange comedy banter.
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A prologue has a buxom lady delivering a suggestively wobbling cake to bellicose Boglodite Boris the Animal (Flight of the Conchords' Jermaine Clement labouring beneath a mound of hideous prosthetics), who's considered so dangerous that he's incarcerated in a maximum-security prison on the moon. Hidden inside this unlikely confection is Boris's symbiotic killer critter chum, which scuttles into a mouth-like opening in his hand. This must rank as one of veteran creature effects man Rick Baker's most deliciously revolting creations. Having made good his escape, Boris resolves to get revenge on K, who apprehended him for attempting to conquer the Earth back in 1969. Meanwhile, J is puzzling over what made his partner such a grump. The arrival of new boss O (Emma Thompson, demonstrating her impressive comedy chops in what amounts to little more than a cameo) seems to provide a clue, as O and K obviously have some kind of history. But after an enjoyable alien shootout in a Chinese restaurant, which reminds us why we loved Men in Black in the first place, K disappears. It seems dastardly Boris has acquired a time travel gizmo and erased his nemesis from history. Since K created the Arcnet shield that protects the Earth from malign aliens, that means invasion is imminent. The only solution is for J to follow Boris back to bohemian late '60s Manhattan and patch everything up again.
Enter the film's trump card: Josh Brolin, doing an uncannily accurate Tommy Lee Jones impression as the younger, cheerier Agent K. The period setting provides an opportunity for some amusing '60s gags, including a fine Andy Warhol one and the revelation that Mick Jagger is an alien "sent to breed with Earth women". In one of the funniest sequences, J also discovers that the era was not a good time to be a smartly dressed, wisecracking young black man. Michael Stuhlbarg pops up as a being who can see all possible futures, his function being primarily to get the scriptwriters out of various tight spots. The whole thing then surrenders to formula for the inevitable climactic showdown and big emotional twist ending.
Part three is certainly an improvement on the second film, but our timeline could probably do without the mooted Men in Black 4.