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Film review: "Men in Black 3" a messy, but fun sci-fi comedy in a retro setting

By Jeffrey Peterson

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, May 25 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Will Smith, left, and Tommy Lee Jones star in Columbia Pictures' "Men In Black 3."

Wilson Webb

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It’s rarely a good sign when a movie halts production five weeks into filming so that the script can finally be finished — as was famously the case with “Men in Black 3.” Add to this the basic question of whether or not audiences even want another movie about the exploits of agents J and K after 2002’s disappointing sequel, and suddenly “Men in Black 3” seems extremely ill advised.

In spite of its major production woes, however, director Barry Sonnenfeld’s finished product is a surprisingly fun — albeit messy and underdeveloped — entry in the 15-year-old franchise that benefits a lot from a retro sci-fi setting and the injection of new blood in the form of Josh Brolin.

Smith returns to one of the roles that made him a bona fide star as MIB agent J. Together with his partner K (Tommy Lee Jones), J has been policing the aliens of New York for 15 years now, but some things — like K’s love of cowboy music — are still a mystery. All of this changes when a notorious criminal from K’s past (Jemaine Clement) manages to escape from a high-security prison on the moon and rewrite history. With the future of Earth and K’s life in the balance, J travels back in time to 1969 and joins forces with a young K (Brolin).

Even at its best, time travel can be a problematic plot element and one that rarely holds up under any degree of scrutiny. Luckily for audiences, very little energy is wasted on the logistics of what the film refers to as “temporal fractures” — this is a sci-fi comedy, after all, and moviegoers should be no more concerned with the issue of time travel than the fact that Josh Brolin is playing a very aged 29-year-old.

Unfortunately, the script is still held back by the number of loose ends and undeveloped plot points. By setting “Men in Black 3” in 1969, the filmmakers open up a huge fund of comedic potential that, aside from a genuinely clever bit involving The Factory and Andy Warhold (Bill Hader), remains mostly untapped at the end of the day.

Similarly, seemingly important characters are introduced but then never really do anything — one example of this being Emma Thompson/Alice Eve as O.

It’s hard not to imagine that a lot of the script issues have to do with the previously mentioned hiatus taken mid-production. The entire movie feels like it was compiled in chunks by a team of writers, which, in fact, is exactly what happened (although only one, Etan Coen, receives credit).

That said, “Men in Black 3” is not a total failure. There are a number of witty references to science fiction movies from the '60s. As with the previous films in the franchise, the comedy comes mostly from the details. All in all, "Men in Black 3" is still a vast improvement on "Men in Black 2."

Will Smith deserves credit for what he continues to bring to the role of J. Like in previous films, he has a natural chemistry with his co-stars, including Brolin as the 1969 K. Of course, Brolin's performance will undoubtedly receive the most attention. It’s eerie how close his impression of Tommy Lee Jones is.

As the villain, Jemaine Clement (“Flight of the Conchords”) also deserves mention. Although not given enough to work with, Clement shines — especially during the opening scene — as Boris the Animal, a nasty addition to the franchise’s roster of memorable alien characters.

Ultimately, though, the entire movie feels underdeveloped. It probably could have used another rewrite or two to tighten up the material and really emphasize a lot of the thematic issues that are off-handedly brought up. As a result, however, a surprising emotional twist at the end doesn’t have nearly the punch that it should have, and the entire film comes off as a little hollow.

A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff is currently studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.

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