05/25/2012 12:12 pm ET Updated Jul 25, 2012

Zaki's Review: Men in Black III

The first Men in Black from 1997 has one of my all-time favorite movie quotes, courtesy of Tommy Lee Jones as he welcomes Will Smith to the film's titular organization:

"Fifteen hundred years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was flat. And fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you'll know tomorrow."

There's a profundity there that gives weight to the slimy alien shenanigans the rest of the thing hinges on, and it's a testament to how effective that first flick was at setting up its characters and scenario that 15 years later, and a decade after the unfortunate Men in Black II, cast and crew so seamlessly step back into their trademark black togs and Ray-Bans that it feels like we missed out on a sequel or two. While there isn't anything especially remarkable or memorable about Men in Black III that you leave the theater with, it's consistently engaging and humorous enough to withstand the barrage of "What? Really?" that its mere existence is likely to elicit after such a long interregnum.

Rejoining our favorite pair of interstellar crimebusters, Agents J (Smith) and K (Jones), still bantering and bickering after all these years, are bedeviled by Boris the Animal (Jermaine Clement), an alien baddie who's made his way out of a lunar prison with vengeance on his mind after losing his arm to K several decades ago. Escaping into the past, Boris causes some manner of space-time kerfuffle that forces J, by way of a time gadget that can only be triggered by a straight drop from the top of the Chrysler building, follows him to the 1960s, where he teams with the young K (played by Josh Brolin) to track down the alien killer.

As the '60s-set action plays out, we get all the requisite riffs the period setting would lead us to expect, from commentaries on racism and sexism, to a very funny bit with Andy Warhol (SNL's Bill Hader), to a climactic Cape Canaveral throw-down on the scaffolding of the Saturn V rocket carrying Apollo 11. As before, effects guru Rick Baker gets plenty of opportunities to showcase his coterie of creepy-crawly creations, and the proceedings, ably ring-mastered once again by director Barry Sonnenfeld, remain breezy and light while still weaving in enough of an emotional through-line to not make it all seem completely disposable.

More than anything, Men in Black III demonstrates precisely why Will Smith has become one of the world's preeminent box office draws in the time since he first suited up for this series. He skates through the often nonsensical plot -- full of the kind of headache-inducing time paradoxes you don't want to spend too much time thinking about -- almost entirely on the strength of his personality. And while Jones' screen time here amounts to little more than an extended cameo, the sting of his absence is minimized thanks to Brolin, something of a human special effect himself with his near-perfect approximation of his older counterpart's staccato twang.

In fact, if Smith is the MVP, then Brolin, who I'm a fan of even when he's stuck in the most aggressively mediocre of productions, is the most pleasant surprise the film offers. He completely subsumes himself within the character, building a comfortable rapport with Smith in the past that has the added effect of giving greater context to Jones' scenes with Smith in the present. It's a nice bit of acting virtuosity that ends up paying off both forward and backward, and also lends some depth to the MIB's new agent-in-charge O (Emma Thompson), who replaces the now-deceased Zed (played previously by the not-deceased Rip Torn).

When this franchise launched a decade-and-a-half ago, the mixture of gross-outs and gags was doled out in exactly the right proportion, and I remember being jazzed at the possibility of new entries in the series arriving periodically. However, the singularly unremarkable follow-up five years later robbed me of just about all desire to ever revisit this world. Remarkably, this new entry manages to neutralize the memory of the singularly unremarkable second film, and makes me feel good about seeing these characters for yet another go-round (which, at the current exponential rate of development, should hit theaters sometime in summer of 2032). B