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Men in Black 3

Here’s the good news about Men in Black 3: It doesn’t stink.

If you were a fan of the original MIB, way back from that halcyon year of 1997, you may be heartened by that. Even discounting the difficulty of following up such an original, smart and delightful movie, MIB2 was a lazy disappointment. But the decade it took to get Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones back in their Reservoir Dogs suits wasn’t spent in devising the perfect script and polishing it to a fine gloss. The surprises of the first film really couldn’t be repeated, only replayed to diminishing effect.

The plot sends Smith’s Agent J back in time to the year 1969 in an effort to foil the plot of a fearsome alien villain (played by Flight of the Conchord’s Jemaine Clement as a parody of every British-accented bad guy in screen history) to take over the Earth. (Or destroy it, I forget.) This sounds like an invitation to plunder ideas from both Austin Powers 2 and Mad Men, but the 1960s jokes are fairly minimal. The best features Bill Heder as Andy Warhol at the height of his Factory days. The meat of the story is J’s interaction with a young agent K, played with perfect pitch by Josh Brolin, who has probably been rehearsing his Tommy Lee Jones imitation at parties for years.

The central joke of the story remains the notion that much of modern life is the result of aliens living on Earth incognito. If you’ve ever wondered about the seafood at second-rate Chinese restaurants, for instance, you’ll get a laugh here.

But the reverse subversiveness of the original film, which took the kind of shadowy government operatives who were the threat in so many 1970s thrillers and made them into the heroes, has been worn away.

Rip Torn is no longer on hand, and if Emma Thompson isn’t the first person I would have thought of to take his place as J and K’s boss, it’s still nice to see her. As a genial alien who can see not only the near future but every variation on it, Michael Stuhlbarg (Boardwalk Empire’s Arnold Rothstein) is the movie’s scene-stealer, though, amusing as he is, you can’t help but remember Vincent D’Onofrio’s brilliant turn as an animated corpse in the first MIB.

It’s tempting to say that, despite some sentimental business near the end that depends on your knowledge of these characters, the best audience for this might be people who have never seen the original film and don’t have it as a standard to be lived up to. On the other hand, without that standard, why would you bother with this?

Watch the trailer for Men in Black 3

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