Features
Revisiting the "Men In Black" trilogy


Date Posted: 15 June 2019


"Thor: Ragnarok" co-stars Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson team up as Agent H
and Agent M in the first "Men In Black' spinoff, "Men In Black: International".

Like it or not, everything old is new again. This can be evidently seen in the current crop of Hollywood movies, particularly when it comes to dusting off the old franchise and revive them all over again for today's generation of moviegoers as well as capitalising the all-important nostalgia factor.

One of them is the "Men In Black" franchise, which has been idled somewhere in the Hollywood vault since "Men In Black 3" back in 2012.


The "Men In Black" franchise, which began its life in 1997, was one of Sony Pictures' top box-office draws and it's hard to believe the studio would give up that easily. Which is why it comes to no surprise that they came up with the idea of a spinoff in an attempt to expand the "Men In Black" universe beyond the original trilogy initially played by Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones.

And now, with the upcoming "Men In Black: International" set to arrive in our local cinemas, it's time to travel back in time to revisit the original "Men In Black" trilogy.

"Men In Black" (1997)

Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones team up as unlikely partners in "Men In Black".

Once upon a time, the former TV star of "Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air" otherwise known as Will Smith, used to be one of the biggest Hollywood superstars in the planet. This was particularly evident during the mid-1990s era when he delivered two back-to-back consecutive hits including "Bad Boys" (1995) and "Independence Day" (1996).

Then came "Men In Black", a sci-fi comedy based on the Aircel comic-book series of the same name created and written by Lowell Cunningham. (Side note: Originally published by Aircel back in 1990, the comic-book series was subsequently sold twice to different comic companies including Malibu and finally, Marvel). The basic premise behind the big-screen version of "Men In Black" is actually short (clocking at just 98 minutes -- a far cry from today's big-budget summer movie blockbusters that typically run around 2 to 2 1/2 hours!) and simple: Will Smith plays a police officer named Jay, whose sheer agility and quick wit immediately catches the attention of a senior agent-in-black nicknamed Agent K a.k.a. Kay (Tommy Lee Jones). Jay gradually gets an offer to join the top-secret Men in Black (MIB) organisation to uphold the law and protect the Earth against illegal alien activities. Soon, their first big case as partners involves the investigation of an illegal bug-like alien disguised as a human (Vincent D'Onofrio) crash-landed on Earth.


Will Smith in a scene from "Men In Black".

Upon release, the first "Men In Black" became an overnight box-office sensation which successfully made a respectable amount of nearly USD590 million at the worldwide box office on a USD90 million budget. Frankly, it's easy to see why the movie was such a hit back then. First, it helps that the star-power combination of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones did catch a lot of public attention, given the fact that Jones himself is another box-office draw. Besides, the screen veteran who famously won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in "The Fugitive" (1993) has appeared in numerous high-profile Hollywood blockbusters including "Under Siege", "The Client", "Batman Forever" and "Volcano". In fact, their odd-couple partnership in "Men In Black" actually works well for each other: Will Smith's a wisecracking smooth-talker while Tommy Lee Jones' being a hilariously deadpan, grizzled character who've seen it all. It was their winning chemistry that made the movie such an entertaining crowd-pleaser.

As simple as the plot goes, "Men In Black" also benefits for successfully blending zany sci-fi elements with the tried and tested buddy-cop formula. Back then, it was considered a refreshing change of pace that appealed for both young and older audiences. The movie is equally blessed with top-notch supporting performances, namely Vincent D'Onofrio as the alien-in-disguise Edgar, as well as Rip Torn and Linda Fiorentino as the head of the MIB, Chief Zed and medical examiner Dr Laurel Weaver.

Then, there's the creature design and special make-up effects by the legendary Rick Baker himself that won him his fifth Oscar for Best Makeup at that time. The effects may look dated by today's standard but at the same time, it's hard to deny the amount of creativity that Baker along with the help of Industrial Light & Magic helps realise the fanciful look of otherworldly aliens seen in this movie.

"Men In Black II" (2002)

Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) and Agent J (Will Smith) back in black in the sequel to 1997's "Men In Black".

The familiar Hollywood term of "cash grab" obviously applies in this sorry excuse of a sequel to the superior 1997 original. With a bigger budget (USD140 million vs. the first movie's USD90 million) and an even shorter length (running at only 88 minutes!), returning director Barry Sonnenfeld must have figured that sticking to the same formula is sufficient enough for the sequel.

In "Men In Black II", the plot basically follows Agent J (Will Smith) persuading Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) to come out of retirement to save -- what else -- Earth from a sinister alien named Serleena (Lara Flynn Boyle).


Lara Flynn Boyle plays the sequel's main antagonist, Serleena in "Men In Black II".

Despite a scant running time, the sequel suffers from a serious case of déjà vu. Just about everything in "Men In Black II" is pretty much a lazy rehash of the original as screenwriters Robert Gordon and Barry Fanaro try their best to cram everything but the kitchen sink. Anything that is used to be fresh and immensely enjoyable in the first movie now became a distant memory. Which is why the sequel feels stale and mostly an uninspired hit-and-miss affair. But it still has its few moments of fun, with the least saving grace being Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones' terrific chemistry and Rick Baker's vibrant creature design.

Although "Men In Black II" was poorly received upon its release in 2002, the sequel still manages to make a decent, if not spectacular amount of money at USD441 million at the international box-office.

"Men In Black 3" (2012)

The younger Agent K (Josh Brolin) and Agent J (Will Smith) in a scene from "Men In Black 3".

For the record, "Men In Black 3" sure took their time long enough for a sequel. An incredible ten years' gap since the inferior 2002 sequel, to be exact. The third instalment of the "Men In Black" franchise was also infamously known for its notoriously-difficult production. Prior to the release on the big screen, the movie is a classic example of "production hell" that includes everything from a staggering budget north of USD215 million, an incomplete script and the controversial Will Smith's 53-foot trailer on the set that cost the studio a hefty USD9,000 a month (!). In the traditional Hollywood term, a big-budget tentpole that suffered from troubled production history and negative publicity like "Men In Black 3" typically spells box-office disaster. And yet, the third "Men In Black" movie miraculously grossed a worldwide total of USD624 million, which also by the far the highest-grossing movie in the "Men In Black" franchise.

As for the movie itself, "Men In Black 3" is admittedly an improvement over the ill-fated 2002 sequel. This time, the story follows Agent J (Will Smith) as he travels back in time in 1969 to stop the alien criminal -- nicknamed Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) -- from killing Agent K's (Tommy Lee Jones) younger self played by Josh Brolin.


Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) and Agent J (Will Smith) in the scene from "Men In Black 3".

Despite carrying an astounding USD215-million price tag, "Men In Black 3" is hardly the kind of big-budget Hollywood blockbuster that adopts the "go-big-or-go-home" visual approach. Sure, there are plenty of spectacular moments, namely the vertigo-inducing freefall from a Chrysler Building that breaks the space-time continuum and the climactic finale atop the Apollo 11 launch in Cape Canaveral, most of the movie is decidedly low-key.

The plot is mostly a mixed bag, especially given the fact it was shot without a finished script. The movie's midsection particularly suffers the most, which drags longer than it should. But the time-travel element, which is reportedly conceived by Will Smith himself, did help to rejuvenate the otherwise stale sci-fi/action comedy formula in the "Men In Black" franchise. While it's nice to see Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones back together as partners after 10 years of absence, the movie frankly belongs to Josh Brolin, who steals most of the show as the younger Agent K.

Writer: Casey Chong



Related Movies
Men In Black: International (13 Jun 2019)
Men In Black 3 (24 May 2012)


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