In one of those realizations that makes your brain hurt, “Men in Black II” came out a decade ago and was a genuinely awful movie. Bloated, poorly cast, and lacking the essential fun factor that made the original 1997 picture such a treat, the sequel stunk up the room, killing interest in a third installment. It took the producers a significant amount of time to slap together a second sequel (keep in mind the public has greeted six “Harry Potter” films since 2002), but “Men in Black 3” (roman numerals are so noughties) is finally a reality, and it’s a marked improvement over the last Agent K and Agent J adventure. Although the simplicity and carefree attitude from “Men in Black” is missing, the third installment of this graying franchise finds some much needed inspiration in the realm of time travel. How it actually copes with such a laborious screenwriting turn is another story.
Perhaps as a way to apologize for the last effort, “Men in Black 3” is determined to provide a complicated viewing experience for franchise fans, aiming to offer a full meal instead of the moldy hors d’oeuvres served up before. Time travel is sticky business, requiring exceptionally tight scripting or a tremendous amount of thrilling distractions to successfully execute, and for the most part, the new threat facing the Men in Black is passable sci-fi entertainment. The trip back to 1969 is actually quite inspired, introducing Brolin as Agent K, who steals the film with his amazing mimicry and no-nonsense spirit, revealing the hardened alien hunter to be a friendly guy before a traumatic event robbed him of his accessibility, or what passes for warmth when dealing with a younger version of Tommy Lee Jones. Brolin is a gas, hitting the exact note of befuddlement and duty “Men in Black 3” needs to return to the first movie’s sense of discovery.
While flashy, time travel disturbs the pacing of the picture, with the strain of storytelling felt in the second act, necessitating the introduction of Griffin to help spackle the holes in the script. “Men in Black 3” is an uneven film, laboring to gain speed once Agent J lands in the past, working to convince a select few of his intentions. Director Barry Sonnenfeld (also returning for his third “MIB” go-around and his first movie in six years) sweats hard to piece together a coherent storyline, killing the momentum of the effort by dwelling on the details. The particulars don’t always fit, leaving a few head-scratching moments along the way (editing by Wayne Wahrman and Don Zimmerman is unexpectedly clunky), along with a dearth of action, making “Men in Black 3” more about comedic confusion than rip-roaring alien entanglements.
Perhaps fearing there isn’t enough sass to satisfy fans, Sonnenfeld permits Smith to clown up a storm as Agent J, working overtime with dull improvisations and limp material, trying to make himself the funniest guy in every scene. Smith is forcing once effortless charm, and his shenanigans seem awfully tired for this third round, which features surprisingly few laughs. The supporting cast is stronger, with special attention paid to Clement, who provides a credible threat to the MIB gang as Boris, a disgusting alien who launches deadly spikes from the palms of his hands. There isn’t enough of the villain in the script, yet Clement manages to make an impression in very few moves, offering the series its best antagonist yet.
Also impressing in “Men in Black 3” are creature designs by legend Rick Baker, who finds a fresh way to gross-out the audience with this latest assortment of extraterrestrial visitors, filling the frame with wild visions of alien life. Cinematography by Bill Pope and production design by Bo Welch also shines, creating a fresh look for a worn-out world, having fun with the jump between 2012 and 1969, while retaining a core “MIB” look that’s been updated for the new age (requiring the removal of Rip Torn as Chief Zed).
While it suffers from pacing problems and doesn’t carry a single bellylaugh, there’s a smattering of excitement around “Men in Black 3” that makes it watchable, miles ahead of the last sequel. It’s a massive film with a chewy center, yet the effort doesn’t sink under the weight of its elaborate intentions. It’s intermittently pleasurable, getting the franchise back on track.