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Why The Third “Men in Black” Isn’t the Charm

May 28, 2012

Right about now, the makers of Men in Black III are probably wishing they could time-jump back to 1997, when $70 million was a lot of money. The third installment of the Will Smith-Tommy Lee Jones alien-busting franchise opened to roughly the same amount of money as the first one did 15 years ago. But what a difference a decade and a half makes: Now movies like The Avengers show superhuman strength at the box office, sucking in more than $200 million in three days. What went wrong? Here’s my trilogy of theories.

1. Fifteen years is a loooong time. “I’m getting too old for this,” Smith’s J says with a straight face, cutting the cliché short by leaving off the obligatory “shit” (or “shiznit,” as he datedly puts it in another scene). Then, turning to Jones’ K, he adds, “I can only imagine how you must feel.” We don’t have to imagine: We can see how old Jones looks; as my former college roommate and fellow film critic Arnold Wayne Jones eloquently put it, “like a saddle with eyebrows.” No wonder recidivist director Barry Sonnenfeld wastes no time flashing back to 1969, when K is played by the considerably 3-D friendlier Josh Brolin (though not box-office friendlier; he’s seemed cursed ever since Jonah Hex). And no wonder they killed off Rip Torn’s Zed—anyone who’s seen his infamous mugshot knows he’d scare small children, even in 2D. They replace him with new boss Emma Thompson—and then replace her with the younger, prettier but far less interesting Alice Eve. As for Smith, his Fresh Prince charm grows staler with each passing year.

2. It’s not just the age of the cast; it’s the age of the gags. “The prerequisite of a joke is to be funny,” says J, but apparently no one told screenwriter Etan Cohen (not to be confused with Ethan Coen, who cowrote the far funnier No Country for Old Men, where Brolin must’ve honed his killer Tommy Lee Jones impression). Born in 1974, Cohen apparently did his research on the ’60s via Wikipedia, hence the tired jokes about Andy Warhol (a wasted Bill Hader), the Miracle Mets and and the moon landing.

3. It’s a victim of “the second one sucked” syndrome. It’s deja vu all over again from the Back to the Future franchise (which Men in Black III references via its tagline, “Back in Time”). The frenetic Back to the Future, Part II didn’t even feel like a complete movie—probably because it was the first sequel shot back-to-back with its follow-up, the superior but less-seen Western Back to the Future, Part III. Similarly, Men in Black III is better than 2002’s Men in Black II, a slapdash mishmash everyone clearly just did for the money. But to quote the President at that time, “fool me once, shame on…shame on you. Fool me, you can’t get fooled again.”

Did you wish you’d been neuralized after seeing Men in Black III? Fire up a comment!

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