PLOT: Upon discovering that a villainous alien has traveled back in time to 1969 and killed his partner, Agent J must jump back a day earlier to help thwart the menace, save his partner's life, and effectively rescue the world from an alien invasion... again.
REVIEW: After about a year of bad press – reports of excessive delays, never-ending rewrites and clashes between its star and director – MEN IN BLACK III arrives with a rather gentle thump. It's neither the disaster we could have expected it to be, nor the delightful surprise we might have hoped for, instead presenting a safe, predictable and more or less “okay” piece of popcorny entertainment for the whole family. MIBIII doesn't have the pizazz or flat-out coolness factor of the original (how could it?), but it's pleasing to report that the derivative soullessness of the sequel has been filled in with a good-natured vibe that's actually quaint.
Admittedly, the film gets off to a clunky start, with both Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, reprising their roles as Agents J and K, respectively, looking frankly bored with the material and their characters. The jokes fall flat, the energy is low and there's a glaring lack of inspiration on a creative level; even the second MIB, lame as it is, was a treasure trove of throwaway visual gags and bizarre alien lifeforms. MIBIII can't seem to be bothered with all that – the series is finished trying to show us fantastical creatures and unique weapons – opting instead to arrive quickly to its big plot reveal: Agent J will have to travel back in time to partner up with a younger, but still stern-faced, Agent K (Josh Brolin) in an effort to save the world from an alien menace.
More important however, at least to J, is that he save Agent K's life from a time-traveling creep bent on revenge. It's with an uncommonly sweet touch that MIBIII is, in fact, about J's affection for his craggy old partner; the whole movie emerges as one big love story between the two. Writer Etan Cohen and director Barry Sonnenfeld (and a host of other writers, reportedly) have decided not to give J a sassy female to ogle this time around, squarely focusing on the relationship between the two agents, the dynamic of which is – as ever - like a marriage, complete with petty bickering, rude insults and moments of deep fondness. You think I'm kidding, but I'm not: There are more scenes of Smith's J staring lovingly at K – either as played by Brolin or Jones – than I can even remember.
But back to the plot, such as it is. The threat this time around is “Boris the Animal,” a bitter assassin who begins the film in prison, sporting only one-arm and a timeless grudge against Agent K, who shot off his appendage and subsequently arrested him in 1969. As played by the Kiwi musician/comedian Jemaine Clement, Boris is a strangely humorless character; a straight-forward jerk with lame catch-phrases (“Let's agree to disagree”) and a severe drought in the charisma department. On the MIB baddie scale, he ranks above Lara Flynn Boyle's braindead vixen from part two, but well below Vincent D'Onofio's creepy-funny Edgar from the first film. It's curious that Clement was cast in the role and yet not asked to go wild with it.
The problem with Boris is the overall problem with the rest of MEN IN BLACK III: There's a tendency to play it safe when it could be – should be – getting a little weird. A confrontation between Boris from 1969 and Boris from 2012 completely exemplifies this, as the sequence seems on the verge of being milked for unconventional laughs, but it instead goes about business without even trying to hit a home run. The movie as a whole never attempts to be more than adequate, skimping on the wonderful alien gags and unusual moments that made the first MEN IN BLACK so much fun. Even make-up wiz Rick Baker doesn't have a ton to do here; his work on Boris is impressive (dude looks like a combination of a Klingon and Hells Angel, with goggles yuckily bored into his eye-sockets), but there's nowhere near enough of the magic that he brought to the first installment on display. Perhaps it's because the creative team decided that we've seen enough crazy extraterrestrials by now and we're not as prone to being wowed by their antics as we were fifteen years ago, but taking them away really saps MIBIII of a considerable amount of spirit.
Then again, this is a movie that is specifically engineered to highlight the importance of friendship, family and loyalty, and there's more than a glimmer of Will Smith's fingerprints on how genial and inoffensive the final product strives to be. Smith isn't getting Jiggy Wit It anymore; he's a family values kind of guy, and it would not be a shock to discover that reports of Smith heavily involving himself (and a hand-picked screenwriter) in the movie's storyline and presentation turned out to be true. An ending that is quite cheesily contrived, with a gigantic “oh, come on!” twist that's meant to jerk tears and pluck heart-strings, feels especially tacked on by someone who wanted to add one final “touching” moment to the proceedings – nevermind how painfully ridiculous it is.
Still, there's an old-fashioned niceness to MIBIII that makes it more or less a pleasant experience. It's not cynical or mean-spirited, it only wants to be liked for 95 minutes and provide a smattering of truly rousing scenes (Smith's “time jump” off of NYC's Chrysler Building and an clever chat with an inter-dimensional alien played by Michael Stuhlbarg at Shea Stadium are stand-outs). The chemistry between Smith and Brolin is a refreshing change of pace for the series, the latter, of course, perfectly cast as a young K, although he's a pluckier, livelier soul. Brolin's very presence gives the film a lift that it much needs; shame the rest of MEN IN BLACK III doesn't find the same rejuvenation.