Not without fun moments, "Men in Black III" mostly feels like yesterday's news

Men in Black III (2012)
103 min., rated PG-13.
In case your mind feels neuralized from ten years ago, "Men in Black III" is a sequel to, yes, 2002's "Men in Black II," a sequel that you'll remember felt like a briskly enjoyable albeit slightly lazy retread to 1997's zippy, funny, and entertaining "Men in Black." After fifteen years, nobody was really clamoring for a third edition, which suffered an unfinished screenplay during shooting and other behind-the-scenes problems. However, returning director Barry Sonnenfeld still knows how to entertain at a fast pace and makes an attempt to delve deeper into the relationship of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones' memorable alien-busting odd couple. The existence of "Men in Black III" feels tired, like yesterday's news, but most of the time delivers on what audiences came for in the first place.

Forty years after Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) apprehended Boris The Animal (Jermaine Clement) at Cape Canaveral and severed his left arm, the intergalactic nasty has been locked up in the Lunar Max prison on the Moon. After busting out, Boris plans to go back in time to 1969, hoping to kill K and take back his appendage. Meanwhile on Earth, the top-secret corps' bickering partners Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K have spent fourteen years zapping extraterrestrial scum in New York City. The next day at work, after the partners have "a lovers' squabble," J reports to work and finds that K no longer exists. So J must time jump back to the "make love, not war" era of 1969 to stop Boris from killing K, and maybe safeguard the entire planet from another alien invasion before the Apollo 11 Moon landing.

Things do indeed kick off to a divertingly exuberant start, beginning with the mischievous score of the one and only Danny Elfman and the nifty fluidity of director Sonnenfeld's camera. The prison-break prologue opens with Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger, as Boris' vixen human girlfriend, delivering a jiggly cake to the imprisoned monster. Makeup wizard Rick Baker's eye-popping, fantastically icky monsters provide the most pleasure, especially a giddy alien attack in a Chinese restaurant, where even the food is from another planet. 

Whereas the 1997 original cleverly balanced exciting sci-fi thrills and snappy comedy, "Men in Black III" offers more bright action than fresh comedy. Fortunately getting mileage out of the time-travel angle, this sequel is scattered with some fun moments. A sequence atop the Chrysler Building, where J must take the plunge to "time jump" into 1969 and dives through the prehistoric times to the stock market crash, is a dizzying visual blast of Looney Tunes energy. Though hardly integral to the plot, J and the younger K take a trip to Andy Warhol's Factory and run into the pop-art icon himself, played by a very funny Bill Hader. The fellow MIB agent disguised as Warhol whines about having to paint bananas and soup cans. It's easily the film's most clever comedic highlight. The NASA moon launch also comes into play for climactic showdown with Boris, leading to an unexpectedly touching revelation that gives reason to why J and K were destined to be partners and why K is such a sourpuss. 

Smith and Jones are back in the shades and suits, but can't seem to recapture their inspired rapport of yore. The bickering shtick inevitably feels pretty obligatory here. Of course, Smith can still crack wise in his sleep with all that superstar charisma, making a line reading more amusing and energetic than it might read on paper, but Jones is just a drag and hasn't aged too well. (Words couldn't be more accurate when J bemoans to K, "I'm getting too old for this.") Luckily, Jones checks out early (good riddance!) and Josh Brolin takes over as Agent K. If anyone brings anything fresh to the party, it's Brolin, who's spot-on channeling Jones' Texas drawl, his gravelly cadence, and that taciturn demeanor. Their break from stopping Boris to eat pie is particularly amusing. Mimicry or not, Brolin's performance is uncanny. The other major bright spot is Michael Stuhlbarg (who carried his first lead film role in the Coen brothers' "A Serious Man") as an alien named Griffin. Dressed in a winter pom-pom hat and parka, he's a blue-eyed, fast-talking savant who's cursed with the gift of predicting every possible future, including a crucial game for the New York Mets and the fate of the men in black. Looking a bit like Robin Williams, the actor creates a charming character.

Vincent D'Onofrio's farmer-turned-cockroach alien still ranks as the creepiest and funniest Big Bad E.T. that the franchise has seen. Clement (of HBO's "The Flight of the Conchords") is an eccentric hoot as always, frequently reminding people to drop "The Animal" in his name, but he's barely menacing beyond his icky makeup transformation (sunken-in goggles for eyes and spidery pods splitting open from his palms). As for the chief take-over of Zed (Rip Torn) who gets a memorial, Emma Thompson plays Agent O in a bubble-flip wig and Alice Eve plays her younger counterpart. Nothing really comes of the O character, who can finish K's line about burnt coffee, and the O and K romantic subplot feels incomplete. 

This time, the script is credited to single screenwriter Etan Cohen ("Tropic Thunder"), but has the feeling of too many cooks in the kitchen. Where the film sets up a fish-out-of-water joke and squanders the payoff is how J, an African American man plunged into the Swinging Sixties, will be received in society. You might shudder to think that J asking "Is it 'cause I'm black?" to a couple of cops that pull him over really is the best anyone could come up with. Even some of the early dialogue involving Agent J hastily improvising lies to a 29-year-old version of K belongs in a lame episode of "Three's Company." The MIB headquarters' alien board is back but blink and you'll probably miss such familiar faces as Lady Gaga and Tim Burton. Also, a poster of Frank the Pug turns up, but the talking pooch is sorely missed this time around. 

On the level of mindless escapism, "Men in Black III" is passable, neither headache-inducing nor boring, but what a backhanded compliment in tepidly recommending a summer blockbuster. It's not quite a case of diminishing returns nor is it the quantum leap that'll spring these men in black back into relevance. But for the best of Agents J and K, go back to 1997.

Grade: C +