Silver Screen: Men in Black III *1/2

Silver Screen: Men in Black III  *1/2
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The crux of the plot of Men in Black III is a time machine that will allow Will Smith's Agent J to t
Bryan Miller

The crux of the plot of Men in Black III is a time machine that will allow Will Smith's Agent J to travel back to the late 1960s to foil a time-hopping villain intent on amending his future by avenging the past. While you're at it, might as well set the dial on that gizmo for a time when anyone actually gave a rat's ass about the Men in Black franchise.

By my calculations, that would be the turn of the millennium/Willennium. Although the shoddy first sequel was released in 2002, Men in Black has a decidedly 1990s feel, harking back to a simpler time when digital effects were dazzling no matter how awkwardly green-screened, when costar Tommy Lee Jones was hilariously old as opposed to just old-old, and when Smith was contractually obligated to comedically exclaim “Damn!” in every performance. It speaks to the speed with which both technology and culture move that both prior entries in the Men in Black series already look, in the harsh light of retrospection, like minor exhibits in the Museum of Blockbusters.

Bringing the boys out of retirement now feels like the desperate cash grab of a movie studio desperate for any recognizable franchise property it can use to mitigate the financial risk of increasingly exorbitant summer-movie productions. Which it pretty much is, so let's address it as such.

Early in his career, Agent K (Jones) foiled a plot by alien baddie Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) and saved the Earth from invasion. More than forty years later, Boris, who looks like Macho Man Randy Savage with some serious orthodontic concerns, escapes a lunar prison and hijacks a time-traveling device to go back and erase K from history before he can intervene. (The usual time-travel plot conundrums apply here, such as why not just go back and kill K when he's a baby, or kill his parents so he never exists, as opposed to fighting him when he's only somewhat younger and armed with superweapons, but we'll let that slide.) To save his partner, J must go back to 1969 and team up with a younger incarnation of K (played by Josh Brolin) to preserve the timeline.

Just prior to J's trip through the time warp, the tech geek who invented the machine asks him if he's sure he wants to go back to 1969. It wasn't really the best time for your people, he tells J. It's a thorny issue, one the relentlessly positive film clearly has no interest in addressing, so it doesn't. Aside from a token run-in with a pair of dumb cops, the racial component is ignored in the name of fun fun fun, which is more awkward than insulting; nobody's coming to Men in Black III for a history lesson. And to its credit, the movie mostly avoids the culture-clash comedy of a man in the wrong time, à la the Austin Powers-ification of Dark Shadows early this year. No, Men in Black keeps its focus on what's truly important: special effects.

The series's specialty is outlandish alien creatures, but they all seem generically slimy, drooling, and tentacled thanks to directory Barry Sonnenfeld's apparent insistence that digital effects be used whenever possible. Even a simple scene in which Smith is strapped into a machine and rotated upside down is green-screened and computer-enhanced, and the result is that everything in the film (as with most of the last two) feels cartoonish yet oddly stilted. When every significant action scene is largely animated, the live-action components (that is, the actors) only seem to get in the way. A chase sequence at the film's midpoint is elaborately choreographed and digitized to within an inch of its life, yet despite looking expensive it's also totally inert. Say what you will about old-fashioned car-chase sequences, they at least convey some semblance of motion. Men in Black is as kinetically thrilling as a narcoleptic starfish.

The movie does generate a few laughs, largely thanks to Brolin's nifty Tommy Lee Jones impression and a nice turn from Michael Stuhlbarg as an alien who can experience every potential outcome of a situation simultaneously. Lucky him: He gets to live in an alternate world where sitting through Men in Black III was actually a pretty good time.

Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.