Will Smith has kept such a low screen profile recently that it’s tempting to ask if Hollywood has been neuralised into forgetting he’s huge. Or that Men In Blackserved a rare hit of fun in a 1997 summer stuffed with stodgy sequels (Speed 2, The Lost World), joyless genre pieces (Contact, Event Horizon), fanboy fright-mares (Batman & Robin) and volcano blow-outs (Dante’s Peak, Volcano).
Mix that lot with the post-X-Filesportent that was stifling sci-fi back then, and it’s easy to see why MIBwas welcomed as a blast of fresh (prince) air. At base, it’s a test case in how bright direction, smart scripting and canny casting can make cooked-to-order conceits zing.
The set-up of a grizzled old-timer (Tommy Lee Jones) teaching a cocky rookie (Will Smith) the policing ropes is pure formula; frisky aliens and Reservoir Dogsduds add modern bankable appeal. Yet scriptwriter Ed Solomon, working from Lowell Cunningham’s comics, mashes up the alien metaphor with satirical riffs on America and (intergalactic) immigration.
Barry Sonnenfeld’s direction plays the agent-to-agent repartee briskly (“Humanoid?” “You wish. Bring a sponge.”) and the leads’ buddy-buddy act works a charm, Smith’s mock-macho maximalism and Jones’ dour minimalism deliciously contrasted.
Then there’s monster man Rick Baker keeping the ET eye-candy coming with his jam-packed menagerie of fins, flippers, slime, tendrils and ’tude. Sure, repeat visits don’t reveal hidden depths and the story is forgettable: anyone remember Vincent D’Onofrio’s maggoty mischief? But with Sonnenfeld sustaining a pace as flighty as the bug the film opens with, you barely notice there’s no real narrative.
Proof that breezy ain’t always easy was served by Sonnenfeld and Smith’s Wild Wild West, a clunker that took, if memory serves, 10 times as long as MIBto deliver a tenth of the fun. Attempts to reload on fleet firepower for MIB IIalso fumbled the balance of elements.
The gags that worked last time (worm guys, hangdog dog) return and the odd smart new giggle features (the alien civilisation in a locker), but indifferent storytelling (Vartha, Arthur, Martha, whatever) is cynically taken as a given and the chemistry between Smith’n’Jones – their roles awkwardly reversed – has wilted.
All diffuse parts and no soul, MIB IIleaves the set-pieces with nothing to coalesce around. Assuming audiences remember Agents J and K, then, MIB III’s task is clear: deliver enough plot to compete with today’s cleverer class of genre flick and neuralise MIB II from existence.