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Men on a mission blast back

If ever a sequel seemed out of time, it's Men in Black 3. Released 10 years after MIB2, and an astonishing 15 years after the 1997 original, this film seems a wildly incongruous box-office competitor for the likes of Avengers Assemble and The Dark Knight Rises.

But here it is in any case, and while Men in Black 3 is nobody's idea of a masterpiece, it's a vast improvement on the dire MIB2.

In a breezy prologue, a beautiful woman (Nicole Scherzinger, off the US X Factor) arrives at the gates of a grim-looking off-world prison bearing a birthday cake for the joint's most notorious inmate, Boris (Jemaine Clement).

Naturally, the guards let her in, although even they must have suspected that her arrival is the prelude to a breakout. When Boris escapes, he looks into the cosmos and shakes a defiant fist at the planet Earth.

He arrives here on this planet as the advance party of a mass alien invasion, but has a personal score to settle as well.

Years before, Boris lost an arm in a battle with Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), and now plans to use a time-travel gizmo to travel back to 1969, kill the young Agent K before he maims him, and also change the course of human history.

Apart from becoming the grumpy and catatonic partner of Agent J (Will Smith) in the first two MIB films, Agent K helped invent an all-encompassing force field that protects the Earth from alien invasion. If Boris kills K in 1969, this field will not exist and human culture will be overwhelmed by green slimeballs.

When Agent J discovers this, he must travel back to 1969 himself to protect K and destroy Boris.

All of this is actually less complicated than it sounds (it would want to be), and the long and short of it is that J is catapulted back to the late 1960s, where he quickly discovers that the past is indeed a foreign country.

For a start he finds that being black in 1969 is no picnic, and in a pretty funny scene he's stopped by the cops in a fancy open-top car that they believe he's stolen simply because of his colour -- the irony being that he has.

Josh Brolin is perfectly cast as the younger Agent K, and does a very passable impression of the Tommy Lee Jones growl. He is, of course, dubious about J's claims to be a man with a mission from the future. But when he realises that J has to be telling the truth, they head for Cape Canaveral, where the Apollo 11 moon mission is about to be launched.

Emma Thompson and Alice Eve play two radically different versions of the agents' boss, O, who turns out to be something of a love interest, and Michael Stuhlbarg is excellent as an alien savant called Griffin.

The film heads for some obvious jokes once it arrives in the 60s, including a trip to the legendary Factory where Andy Warhol (Bill Hader) turns out to be a rather stressed anti-alien agent.

The special effects, as you'd expect, have come on a bit since the first two films, and there are some amusing fight scenes, especially one involving a giant alien fish and the destruction of a Chinese restaurant.

The film's action scenes and climax are well handled by director Barry Sonnenfeld, and Smith is as unremarkably watchable as ever, though Tommy Lee Jones's contribution is relatively brief and one misses their pained interactions.

Overall, though, MIB3 is pretty entertaining, but it might have been a lot funnier had it been less timid in its approach to the 1960s, and in particular that decade's un-evolved attitude to race.

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