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posted: 5/24/2012 6:00 AM

'MIB 3' light years better than last sequel

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  • A younger version of Agent K (Josh Brolin) confers with Agent J (Will Smith) who's come from the future to save his partner in "Men in Black 3."

      A younger version of Agent K (Josh Brolin) confers with Agent J (Will Smith) who's come from the future to save his partner in "Men in Black 3."

  • Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) may be fast on the draw, but not enough to avoid being killed, sending his partner back in time to save him in "Men in Black 3."

      Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) may be fast on the draw, but not enough to avoid being killed, sending his partner back in time to save him in "Men in Black 3."

  • Video: MEN IN BLACK 3 trailer

 
 

Here's one for the Hollywood record books: a second sequel that's better than the first.

Ten years have passed since we last saw Agents K and J quell alien aggression in the bloated, lackluster science-fiction comedy "Men in Black 2." (In Hollywood years, that's a really long stretch between sequels, you know.)

Director Barry Sonnenfeld re-teams with Tommy Lee Jones (K) and Will Smith (J) for the fleet and entertaining "Men in Black 3," an engaging 3-D action romp that boldly ventures into "Terminator" territory while retaining the basic buddy/cop appeal of the first "MIB" film from 1997.

The real lapel grabber in "MIB 3" turns out to be Josh Brolin's spot-on performance as a 29-year-old version of Jones' crusty, laconic Agent K, as he was back in July of 1969.

Brolin (actually 44, which makes his role even funnier) nails Jones' Texas twang, Easter Island-like expressiveness and deadpan comic timing so well, it's easy to believe that "MIB 3" actually did travel back in time to find a much younger Jones.

After opening scenes re-establish how the agents keep aliens on earth both secret and peaceful, "MIB 3" flies us to a moon prison where alien arch-villain Boris the Animal (Jermaine Clement, another British-sounding baddie) escapes and sets out to punish Agent K for shooting off his left arm back in 1969.

Meanwhile in New York, Agents J and K have settled into something like an old professional married couple who've slowly drifted apart.

J, played by an unexpectedly subdued Smith, wonders how his older partner wound up as an ancient soul trapped in a craggy tree-trunk of a human being. Surly K provides no clues or small talk.

Just before J gets around to saying something like "We don't talk anymore," Boris the Animal travels back to 1969 and kills Agent K before he can shoot off the alien's arm.

In 2012, all traces of K's existence suddenly disappear. Only J has any knowledge of K, except for their new boss O (Emma Thompson, replacing Rip Torn), who knew K 40 years earlier as a young agent when he was murdered.

O recognizes something's wrong when J craves chocolate milk, a sure sign of temporal shifting in the time/space continuum -- or something like that. (Better not to question this. Just go with it.)

Now that Boris has killed K in 1969, K won't be able to put a protective shield around Earth as he did, thereby averting an alien invasion.

Forced to act to save the planet, J travels back to July 15, 1969, right before Boris kills his partner, in hopes he can restore the former temporal order of things.

It's a tall challenge reactivating a failed sci-fi franchise after a decade.

Who knows how many studio fingerprints were on the scripts to this project before it finally went before cameras?

Yet, Sonnenfeld pulls off a deliriously monstrous, delightfully messy movie made of equal parts of fresh and familiar.

Jones and Smith let their low-key chemistry carry the weaker moments in "MIB 3," which crackles with energy once Brolin hits the screen with his Jonesian tics and mannerisms intact, yet never overplayed.

"MIB 3" has another weapon in the goofy Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg), a lovable, nerdy alien with the ability not only to see future events, but various possible outcomes of the future, depending on how people (and aliens) act. (Hey, free will exists in the universe after all!)

"MIB 3" is a gleefully mind-bending bit of fun accompanied (again) by Danny Elfman's heroic music, Rick Baker's grotesquely imaginative alien makeup effects and Bill Pope's energized cinematography (although those swooping crane shots bear Sonnenfeld's signature style from when he worked as cinematographer on the Coen brothers' "Blood Simple" and "Raising Arizona").

Etan Cohen's script is a minefield of comic gems, particularly when Griffin lists the unlikely series of events that would have to occur for the '69 Mets to beat the Cubs and clinch the World Series.

Better not to question this. Just go with it.

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