REVIEW: "Men in Black III"

After a decade-long hiatus, director Barry Sonnenfeld ("The Addams Family") returns to the popular sci-fi franchise originally based on the Marvel Comic by Lowell Cunningham. "Men in Black III" centers on J and K, government agents tasked with protecting humanity from the alien scum of the Universe. Though Agent J, played by Will Smith ("Ali," "Independence Day"), is now a fifteen-year veteran of the top-secret organization, he is still no closer to his mysterious partner, the reticent and gruff Agent K, played by Tommy Lee Jones ("The Fugitive").

This lack of understanding between J and K coincides with the escape of a murderous alien named Boris the Animal ("Flight of the Conchords'" very funny Jemaine Clement) from a high-security prison. With vengeance on his mind, the villainous Boris travels back in time to 1969 to kill Agent K, the man who sent him to prison and foiled his plans to destroy the Earth. Now, J must follow Boris back in time and enlist the aid of a much younger K ("W.'s" Josh Brolin) in order to prevent his future partner's death and stop a full-scale alien invasion.

It's unfortunate that the crucial first act of "Men in Black III" is also the film's most uneven. Etan Cohen's screenplay tries too hard to manufacture tension out of the apparent lack of friendship between J and K. Agent J complains loudly that Agent K does not share anything about his life, but because Smith is so good-natured, the diatribe seems out of character and feels forced. The same can be said for a number of the clunky sight gags in act one, particularly those in the Chinese Restaurant owned by an alien couple serving up some pretty disgusting alien fare, courtesy of make-up effects guru, Rick Baker.

While the audience may roll their eyes at the action, they're at least treated to a performance by Will Smith, an actor so charismatic that it's almost criminal. Once Smith is finally sent back in time to save his partner, the stakes become real, the story feels honest and the film begins firing on all cylinders.

The 3D Sonnenfeld employs to enhance the story is one of the best realizations of the technology to date. Wholly immersive, the onscreen action leaps out at the audience in an organic way that never feels gimmicky. Viscerally aiding in the overall feeling of immersion is the film's explosive sound design. When the 1969 Apollo 11 Moon launch takes place on screen, it sounds and feels like a real rocket might actually be lifting right out of the theater and punching through the Earth's atmosphere.

Fun new characters and a new retro timeline inject much-needed energy into the fifteen-year old franchise, but the heart of the series has always been the relationship between J and K, and the chemistry between Smith, Jones and Brolin is seamless. Any concerns the audience might be harboring about missing the taciturn Jones and his sad Basset Hound eyes, are soon put to rest by the scene-stealing Brolin, who imbues the young Agent K with an almost-sunny idealism and enough mannerisms to fool even Jones' mother. Bill Hader ("Saturday Night Live") and Will Arnett ("Arrested Development") both turn in fun cameos and anyone who thinks Emma Thompson ("Sense & Sensibility") is just a dramatic actress might be surprised and delighted by her performance.

Ten years is a long time. Think about it: Mark Zuckerburg invented Facebook and became a billionaire, the financial meltdown crippled the economy and Apple launched and released five generations of the iPhone since the last time Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones donned their iconic black suits and shades. But, luckily for Sonnenfeld and "Men in Black III," absence, a great cast, dazzling 3D visuals and the benefits of time travel really have made the heart grow fonder.

"Men in Black III" opens in theaters today.

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