'Men in Black 3': A Could-See

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The new movie is better than the second installment, with standout performances by Josh Brolin (as a young Agent K) and Jemaine Clement.

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Sony Pictures

The world is generally not kind to long-belated sequels. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that long-belated sequels are generally not kind to the world. When a film property sits on the shelf long enough, its recipe fades and its ingredients molder. Thus The Godfather: Part III. Thus The Two Jakes. Thus Indiana Jones and the Aliens George Lucas Insisted On Putting In. (Yes, yes, Toy Story 3, you get to be the rule-proving exception.)

Men in Black III seemed poised to add to this litany of cinematic woe, ambling along a decade after the franchise's already weary second installment slouched into theaters. Yet contrary to expectation, the movie represents at least a partial return to form--not as inventive as the first, but surely better than the recycled materials that made up the second. It's hardly a must-see, or even a should-see. But it's a might-see, a could-if-you're-in-the-mood-see.

The movie stars Will Smith as Agent J, Tommy Lee Jones as Agent K, and, in its defining flourish, Josh Brolin as Tommy Lee Jones. (Back to this in a moment.) As the story opens, Agents J and K are fulfilling their professional obligation to ensure that the many extraterrestrials living covertly on Earth obey the laws delineating their visits. (In particular, there's one proprietor of a Chinese restaurant whose Noodle Surprise contains a larger than usual surprise...)

But from the start, something is weighing Agent K down, even beyond his appropriate guilt over MiB II. He's surlier and less communicative than in the earlier films, swimming against an undertow of hidden sorrow. "What is the most destructive force in the universe?" he asks J, before answering himself: "Regret." What's going on? Have we stumbled into No Country for Old Men in Black?

The movie takes its time in providing an answer, but early on we learn that K's regrets are somehow connected to an alien assassin he apprehended at Cape Canaveral in July 1969 (students of astronautical history, take note). Moreover, that very assassin, Boris the Animal—played by Jemaine Clement with the kind of swaggering relish scarcely seen since Tim Curry took off his garters—has, after decades of incarceration, just escaped from his prison on the Moon.

Boris arrives in New York and, shortly thereafter, Agent K vanishes. Searching for him at Men in Black HQ (essentially IKEA, but with a better-dressed clientele), Agent J is told that K has been dead for over 40 years. Boris has, of course, gone back in time to 1969 and altered history by killing Agent K; it falls to J, of course, to follow him and alter it back.

The central gag of the movie, and it's a good one, is that Agent K circa 1969 is played by Josh Brolin, who captures Jones's inflections with unerring fidelity. Brolin has gifts both for mimicry and for the particular rhythms of Texas and, as he did in W., he puts both to good use here. Like Jones, his delivery is at once clipped and drawn out, martial and laconic. Brolin puts more care into uttering a single, syllable-and-a-half Alright than many actors devote to entire performances.

Smith is good, if hardly memorable, as J, and Jones makes the most of his limited screen time as Agent K circa 2012. Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man) does a nice job as a potentially cloying alien ally, though Emma Thompson is underutilized as new MiB chief Agent O. The movie gets appropriate mileage out of its 1969 milieu without going the full Austin Powers, and has a nice reversal on the obvious Andy-Warhol-must-be-an-alien joke. There are gags about using cell phones on airplanes, flushing goldfish down toilets, and the improbability of the Miracle Mets' pennant drive. And while the film hardly represents a return to early form for director Barry Sonnenfeld, it's nice to see him working on the big screen again.

In the end, though, MiB III is somewhat undone by its own structure. Having opened with the proposition that what happens in 1969 will explain the personal loss nursed by Agent K ever since, the film faces a quandary: It can close with a truly terrible event, thus messing with the whole goofy MiB vibe; or it can make light of it, thus undermining its own premise. For me, the conclusion missed in both directions at once--offering a revelation with serious implications, but then uncomfortably ushering it offstage as quickly as possible. It's a pity there's no going back to fix it.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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