Published May 25. 2012 4:00AM
In pop culture terms, it has been light years since the "Men in Black" franchise's last installment.
A full decade has passed since agents J and K last battled nefarious aliens bent on the destruction of Earth, and after numerous false starts, rumors of an embattled production and an estimated $375 million budget, "Men in Black 3" has arrived, bearing little trace of its reportedly tortuous creation.
Re-teaming stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones with director Barry Sonnenfeld, this briskly paced episode provides modest entertainment, finding surprising pathos in an otherwise lightweight narrative, even as it waves away the stench of the financially successful but unsatisfying "Men in Black II."
Once more, the gregarious J (Smith) and the taciturn K (Jones, whose performance more or less serves as a bookend) are keeping the world safe for humanity, but something's troubling K. As the Men in Black mourn the loss of leader Zed and welcome the new chief, Agent O (Emma Thompson, in a glorified cameo), Agent K disappears suddenly, sending Agent J hurtling back to 1969 to meet up with the younger version of his partner (Josh Brolin). Together, they must stop the menacing Boris (a wasted Jermaine Clement, "Flight of the Conchords") from annihilating humanity.
While Jones provides some early, welcome doses of surly comic relief, "Men in Black 3" is really a Will Smith vehicle. He's in nearly every scene and, despite Etan Cohen, David Koepp, Jeff Nathanson, and Michael Soccio's breezy script, provides plenty of obvious improvisation. Together with Brolin (whose imitation of Jones is eerily accurate), the pair keeps the film humming and brings the chaos to an unexpectedly poignant conclusion.
The visual effects work is predictably top-shelf, with plenty of squirm-inducing creatures on display, although there are moments where the seams show. Filmed in 3-D, "Men in Black 3" doesn't really benefit from the flashy technology, although J's initial "time jump" from the Chrysler Building and the climactic struggle at Cape Canaveral both get an eye-popping boost.
Although not out of this world, "Men in Black 3" still achieves lift-off, proving there's still life in one of Hollywood's most profitable series. Only the dollars raked in this time around will determine if this is the last we've seen of the dynamic, dark-suited duo.