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Men in Black 3

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'Men in Black 3': Back on Track
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies

The first "Men in Black" movie, one may have trouble recalling (since it was 15 years ago, an epoch in contemporary blockbuster-movie half-life terms), was a pretty quirky little number as far as blockbuster/potential franchise bait went. The conceit of a super-secret agency harboring/collaborating with constructive E.T.s and battling bad ones, and all the revisionist pop culture history that could be built around such a conceit, made for smarter-than-average and eccentric entertainment fare. A good indicator of the movie's aspirational cheekiness was that its credits design was clearly inspired by that of the classic satirical black comedy "Dr. Strangelove." The opening "Men" certainly didn't pack the Kubrick film's satiric acuity, but its sarcasm was in the right place.

Search: More on Will Smith | More on Tommy Lee Jones

And the movie was a humongous hit anyway, largely thanks to blockbuster helper Will Smith, then fresh off his "Independence Day" triumph. The inevitable sequel came together five years later, and if you're wondering why this installment took another decade to happen, well, take a brief look at "Men in Black II," which sucked out all the wit and charm of the first picture and substituted mainly big effects and explosions.

For the first half hour or so of "Men in Black 3," one fears that one is in for more of the same of that. Loosey-goosey Agent J (Smith) is all up in the grill of terse-to-a-fault Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), and the interaction's getting a little forced. A rather irritating supervillain alien named Boris (played by "Flight of the Conchords" favorite Jemaine Clement, whose attempt to fuse the performance styles of Tim Curry, Eddie Izzard and a random WWE wrestler are game but ultimately ill-advised) breaks out of a space prison and enacts revenge on K by going back in time to, well, kill the guy before he can shoot off one of his arms and put him in space prison. This leaves present-day J without a partner, and rather confused, since he seems to be the only one with any knowledge of what was a present-day K. So J has to go back in time to save K, although he's advised to keep as far away from the K of 1968 as possible. This doesn't work out, obviously.

Much of the movie's comic buzz comes from Josh Brolin channeling Tommy Lee Jones as the younger (and inexplicably, at least at first, more emotionally accessible) K. Brolin nails a couple of the central Jones-isms of the characterization (including that way of saying "OK" that's highlighted in the film's trailer) to the extent that he actually gets to be a little more of his own man than you'd necessarily notice unless you were trying really hard. In any event, it's a jewel of a comic performance and really helps the film kick into a higher gear. Although the story still gracelessly knocks around a bit (this is another one of those big-budget deals in which it seems every genre expert in the Continental United States had a crack at rewriting) as K works through his bemusement at encountering a man in black who's carrying a much smaller neuralyzer than the unwieldy room-sized one the agency has back at the office.

But things pick up further when "SNL" stalwart Bill Hader turns up in a clever caricature of a '60s pop-culture icon and Michael Stuhlbarg ("A Serious Man") introduces an alien pre-cog who doesn't only see the future, but sees all potential futures depending on what actions a given individual takes at a given time. This fellow, Griff, teams up with J and K to try to work out just what K was doing in Florida in late July of 1969 (J's contemporary files don't go into that detail).

History mavens in the audience, if there are any, will be slightly ahead of the action, which, as promised, explains both K's emotional shut-downed-ness and also ... no, I'm not gonna spoil it. Suffice it to say that the all-out action battle one might have been expecting/dreading is in fact supplemented by a complex bit of sci-fi plotting that skirts Nabokov/Borges/Calvino territory -- no, really! -- and provides added value in the emotional department. The thing is still too loud and too big in many respects, but it offers some satisfactions that the average blockbuster rarely even bothers to imagine.

Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.

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