Monday, May 28, 2012

A Black Man Cometh

Right now we seem to be living in an era of Hollywood nostalgia. Everywhere you turn is a remake of a classic film, an adaptation of a popular book or television show, or a new sequel to an old franchise. The latter has had the least success in theaters recently with relaunches such as Scream 4 and American Reunion failing to live up to the box office standards of their predecessors. After a year in which the domestic box office sank 3.8 percent and ticket sales dropped 4.7 percent to their lowest levels since 1995, it’s obvious that those in power are afraid to deviate from the “tried and true” methods that had allowed them to achieve market dominance in the first place. The rise of the sequel/prequel is the most obvious example of this fear of change, and we entered 2012 with 27 franchise titles awaiting release, including The Dark Knight Rises, Twilight: Breaking Dawn Pt 2, and The Hobbit. Most of those are sequels from recent films, with Prometheus (a sorta-prequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien) being one of the obvious exceptions. This week marked the release of Men in Black 3, a sequel ten years in the making. MIB3’s release is not only interesting in that it is another long-awaited entry to a popular franchise, but for being the first major film appearance of star Will Smith in more than three years.

"Woah, where was I for the last three years?"
From 1995 through 2008, the actor formerly known as “The Fresh Prince” was arguably the most popular man in Hollywood. A fan favorite, everything Will Smith touched turned to gold, with fourteen films that he headlined accumulating worldwide grosses of over $100 million, four of which (Independence Day, I Am Legend, Hancock and the original Men in Black) grossing over $500 million. He was also a critically-acclaimed performer, using his easy charm and relentless dedication to earn Oscar nominations for his portrayals of real-life figures Muhammad Ali and Chris Gardner. Strangely, Smith decided to step away from the bright lights after his late 2008 film Seven Pounds, presumably to focus on raising his family. His return is a boon to a flagging industry, and it’s good simply to have a proven star back on the big screen.

New York gets a much-needed renovation.
When I first heard that Men in Black 3 was coming to theaters, I admit that my first thoughts were skeptical ones. While I loved the first Men in Black, both a critical and commercial success back in 1997, its sequel five years later was a mess. This practically put a kibosh on any future franchise hopes, despite the good will built up by the first film and the popular animated series that had followed. After the recent failures at reinvigorating long-dormant series, I had no reason to believe that MIB3 could be anything more than a nostalgic cash-grab, but as I learned more about the story I was quickly brought over to the other side. When veteran Men in Black (a top-secret agency who keeps aliens a secret, for those not in the know) Agent K (the eternally dour Tommy Lee Jones) becomes the victim of a time-travel paradox, the only man who doesn’t remember that K died over forty years ago is his partner, Agent J (Smith). J resolves to use an illegal machine to go back in time and fix the problem, and restore his friend to the land of the living. To do so, he must team up with the K of the past (Josh Brolin), and track down and stop the vicious Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement). Boris is out to not only kill K, but prevent a global defense net that K was going to deploy from coming to be, opening the door for an alien invasion that Earth has absolutely no chance of repelling.

The Mad Men audition nobody saw...
It was the inclusion of Brolin that really drew me to MIB3, as the trailers seemed to show the actor perfectly mimicking the mannerisms and personality of a young Jones. Brolin, who’s had a long career but seemed to finally break out in 2007 with No Country for Old Men, has enjoyed a string of praise for his roles in W, Milk and True Grit. These films helped cement his place in cinema as a strong supporting actor, and that talent is on full display here. Brolin separates himself from the rest of the cast – including a strong return by Smith – in his performance as Young K, taking over the reins from Jones with apparent ease. It’s a shame that the entire concept of his appearance means that Brolin will be unlikely to appear in any more sequels, as it will be difficult to enjoy when we know that we were missing. Smith proves he still has the cocky charm to carry a film on his back, and doesn’t appear to feel any poor effects from his acting hiatus. It’s a good thing Jones’ role was reduced, as he looks even more tired than usual (and you know he’s getting too old for this shit), which is a giant flag that the series would be running out of time even without a great opening weekend. Other great additions to the cast include Flight of the Conchords’ Clement, who appears to have graduated from the Hugo Weaving/Tim Curry school of movie villainy; Emma Thompson and Alice Eve as MIB’s new head Agent O and her younger incarnation, respectively; and Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays an alien with the ability to see all potential timelines as one.  Stuhlbarg especially stands out, and alongside Brolin brings the whole experience to a level beyond what the film SHOULD have been able to do.

"I'm just going to ask you once: Are you a Communist spy??"
It’s not just the return of Smith that makes MIB3 so special, but those behind the scenes as well. Director Barry Sonnenfeld, Executive Producer Steven Spielberg and producers Walter F. Parkes and Laurie MacDonald all return, and their contributions do a great job of replicating the combined environments of real life and cheesy science fiction that made the first film such a crowd-pleasing hit in the first place. Screenwriter Etan Cohen helps keep the story fresh, introducing the time travel concept that is the film’s central plot device while simultaneously exploring K’s back-story in a way that doesn’t involve numerous, angst-riddled voiceovers. Some of the series’ minor staples, including the knowledge that the more “eccentric” celebrities out there are actually aliens in disguise, are downplayed somewhat in this go-around, though seeing Lady Gaga on MIB’s watch list does garner a few chuckles. But while the film does have some inspired moments (including having SNL vet Bill Hader play renowned artist Andy Warhol as an undercover Agent W), MIB3 does its best when not trying to do too much, and allowing the natural charisma of Smith and crew to do more with traditional humor.

The much-anticipated Bieber cameo.
After so long an absence, it’s almost guaranteed that this will be the final entry in the proud Men in Black franchise. That’s a shame, as there is a lot here to suggest that the series could build up steam under the right circumstances. Jones would almost certainly have to go, but finding someone who matches Smith’s irreverent on-screen attitude would be nearly impossible, even if they hadn’t already statistically eliminated Brolin from the running. Still, if this is the end for J, K and the rest of the alphabet, at least the MIB name can go out on a high note. It may not be as entertaining or as unique as the original, but Men in Black 3 still manages to combine the right amounts of action and humor that can make for the perfect summer film, making it the #5 film of 2012. As for Will Smith’s big screen comeback, I can’t imagine a more appropriate return for the actor, and hope that all his future big-screen work can be this entertaining for however long he decides to keep the fires going.

No comments: