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'Men in Black III' won't let you remember part 2

Friday - 5/25/2012, 8:22am  ET

mib2.jpg

Here they come again: 'MIB 3' a pleasant surprise

Jason Fraley, WTOP film critic

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Jason Fraley, WTOP Film Critic

WASHINGTON - Will Smith is the fresh prince of the "summertime" blockbuster.

Since moving from boomboxes to TV to the silver screen, 11 of Smith's 15 movies have grossed at least $100 million, four have grossed more the $200 million, and one grossed more than $300 million. Years from now, after winning his Oscar as Barack Obama, we'll look back fondly at his popcorn alien-bashers, "Independence Day" (1996) and "Men in Black" (1997).

The latter sums up Smith's appeal, combining a box office smash with a title song from the same album as "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It," a hipness that plays beautifully off Tommy Lee Jones' cowboy with the motto: "You know the difference between you and me? I make this look good."

Like the "Indiana Jones" series, the third installment is much stronger than the second. In fact, "Men in Black 3" erases "Men in Black 2" from our memories like an M.I.B. neuralizer.

Here, the evil Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) escapes from a lunar prison and goes back in time to kill Agent K, played in the present by Jones and in the past by his "No Country for Old Men" co-star Josh Brolin (the best performance of the film). This forces Smith's Agent J to travel back to 1969 to prevent the murder, commenting on everything from racial profiling to the moon landing, and giving Smith an excuse to say, "I have no problem pimp-slapping the shiznit out of Andy Warhol."

You'll have to overlook a serious plot hole, as J may have never been invited to join the M.I.B. if K had died. The time-travel premise also loses points for originality, as it's a mash-up of "The Terminator" (going back in time to kill a younger version of a character), "Austin Powers" (traveling back to the swingin' '60s) and "Back to the Future" (needing to hit a certain speed to make time travel possible).

Still, Smith puts the "jiggy" in the 1.21 gigawatts, thanks to a very funny script by "Tropic Thunder" writer Etan Cohen, an alum of TV's "Beavis and Butthead," "King of the Hill" and "American Dad," and some script doctoring from David Koepp ("Jurassic Park," "Spider-Man," "Mission: Impossible").

While Smith gets the funniest lines -- including an "OK" joke I couldn't help laughing at -- the best addition is the character of Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg, "A Serious Man"). He's a comic relief version of the psychic from "Don't Look Now" (1973), anticipating possible future scenarios and enjoying the collection of coincidences that allowed for the Miracle Mets to win the World Series.

More important than the laugh lines, the script features a number of welcome plot surprises that layer the characters and make for a touching ending. Hopefully, this will end the series.

There's so much more to this one than the 3D glasses, which make us feel like we're putting on the M.I.B. Ray Bans. The shades "won't let you remember" some of the effects, like a battle with a CGI fish that feels more like a theme park attraction. However, the effects of Boris the Animal are hard to forget, from a creepy insect that crawls inside his hand, to an amputated arm that recalls successful sequels of the past ("Empire Strikes Back"). Most importantly, the "time warp" scenes effectively apply the third dimension to the fourth.

After a lame second installment and a mediocre trailer, "Men in Black 3" looked treacherous. But that's why "going to the movie" actually matters, allowing preconceptions to melt away in your popcorn bucket, and leaving the movie to be judged on its own merits.

Pleasantly surprised.

★ ★ ★

The above rating is based on a 4-star scale. Read more from WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley by clicking "Fraley on Film" under the "Living" tab above, following @JasonFraleyWTOP on Twitter, and checking out his blog, The Film Spectrum.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)