May 25, 2012


MEN IN BLACK 3:  Watch It At Home – $250M Worth of “OK”


After years of development, a famously troubled production, untold rewrites and a budget that even Sony admits is around $250M (meaning $400M+ with marketing), MEN IN BLACK 3 is… fine.  Proficient and professional, neither inspired nor demanding, containing a few chuckles, the usual CG spectacle and a couple of striking performances, swift yet without any particular sense of impetus, it’s… decent enough.  Much better than John Carter or Battleship, not as enjoyable as The Avengers, it’s an extraordinarily expensive paperweight that does manage to hold down paper.


It’s hard to think of MIB3 as a movie and not a corporate product, because the latter is what it so tangibly is.  10 years after the underwhelming MIB2, there was no discernible outcry for a third installment, and Will Smith, the most successful movie star in the world right now, hardly needed the cash.  And yet here it is, a vehicle to sell hundreds of millions of dollars worth of tickets and plenty of overpriced popcorn and drinks, especially overseas, where 3D CG spectacles are king.  Smith will make yet another fortune, and Tommy Lee Jones and director Barry Sonnenfeld will do very well, as will Executive Producer Steven Spielberg, although with this level of costs, it’s unclear how much profit will be left for Sony.

MIB3 feels something like the most expensive episode in history of a successful TV show in its 6th season.  It knows perfectly well how to deliver the signature aspects of its series, but can’t really find the energy that originally drove them.  The script, credited to Etan Cohen (although it’s well-known that many other writers contributed to various drafts), is all-too-neatly structured:  when the story’s first act has Agent J (Smith) exchange pointed dialogue with Agent K (Jones) about just how K became so emotionally closed-off and grumpy, and K reacts badly to something J says about fatherhood, you can bet that by Act 3, we’re going to find out just what was behind those remarks.

The way it’s accomplished is via a time-travel plotline.  The movie’s first section takes place in the present, where something like real time has passed since MIB2, and J and K have been partners for 14 years.  They’re on the track of evil alien Boris The Animal (he prefers just “Boris”), played by Jermaine Clement.  Abruptly K disappears from the universe, remembered by no one other than J (with a convenient explanation for why he’s the exception).  Somehow Boris went back in time to 1969, when he and K had theit first face-off, and this time Boris killed K, wiping him out of the future timeline.  Naturally, J has to go back to 1969 himself to eliminate Boris before Boris can eliminate K.  (The killing of K will also cause the end of the world in the present day, although that’s less important here than you might think.)

Almost all the rest of the movie is set over a couple of days in July 1969.  There are some slight bits of social commentary, as J is treated with the level of civil rights that existed in those days, and there’s an Andy Warhol gag that’s less funny than it thinks it is.  However, 2 really good things emerge at this point in the film, in fact the best parts of the movie.  First, J has to partner up with the 1969 version of K, who is played by Josh Brolin in a performance so unerringly Tommy Lee Jonesian that if Jones ever merits a feature biography, no one is allowed to play him but Brolin.  The great thing about Brolin’s work is that although he’s doing an imitation, it’s as phlegmatic and understated as Jones’s acting is itself–it’s an admiring homage as well as an impersonation.  The other great performance comes from Michael Stuhlbarg (probably best known for playing Arnold Rothstein on Boardwalk Empire) as Griffin, a soulful alien who can see all possible versions of the future, and who, despite all his visions of pain and planetary destruction, still manages to enjoy watching the 1969 Amazin’ Mets.

Mostly, though, the movie is marked by Will Smith’s performance, one that hits its marks, punches away at the dialogue, but lacks any sense of commitment.  The picture becomes a routine, weary series of chase scenes and creature sequences that suddenly decides to become emotional and revelatory in its last reel.  This stuff works to an extent, mostly because Smith and Jones (and Brolin) sell it so well in the final sequences, but it always feels synthetic–imitation emotion.

$250M buys a lot of technical expertise, and MIB3‘s CG is state of the art, from the many aliens, to a recreated Shea Stadium, to a chase that takes place all around the launch of a spacecraft.  Sonnenfeld keeps the movie in constant motion, and the production design doesn’t stint on huge, impressive sets, as well as cool gadgets (there are some sight gags built around the size of technology as it existed in 1969).  Along with Smith, Jones, Brolin, Stuhlbarg and Clement, Emma Thompson turns up in the present as replacement to the late Rip Torn at headquarters, and Alice Eve, though not particularly Thompson-like, is appealing as her 1969 self.

For all its narrative stakes and production values, Men In Black 3 is ultimately unexciting.  It goes through its paces with a vacant skill, and the lack of zeal shows:  the laughs don’t quite land, the big action sequences don’t draw audience passion.  If the people behind the movie really wanted to convey what was most on their minds while they were making it, they’d wear the spreadsheets of their projected income.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."