Can any one of the millions of Americans who saw Men in Black 2 in 2002 describe its plot today? A single scene? Chances are, if you saw both MIB movies upon their original release you have little memory of the experience, as if our minds have been wiped with one of those "neuralyzing" flash sticks that Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones use to give amnesia to witnesses of supernormal incidents.
The modern science of the franchise depends, though, on the public having a short memory, waiting for the moment when '02's "I paid $7 for that?" fades to indifference and then receptivity, if not nostalgia. Hence Men in Black 3, which reunites the series stars with director Barry Sonnenfeld, who, beginning with 1991's The Addams Family, made his fortune on special-effects comedies that could be summarized and cross-promoted on the side of a 44-ounce fountain drink.
If you opt to rent the 3-D glasses, Men in Black 3 will be $14; the product has not, otherwise, changed significantly. Ten years later, Agent J (Smith) and Agent K (Jones) have retained their affable younger black guy/tight-assed older white guy repartee. While J is nagging the emotionally constipated K to be more forthcoming about his past, Boris "The Animal" (Jemaine Clement), an intergalactic hellion that K collared and crippled in 1969, is busy busting out of lunar prison. Boris is seeking not only revenge on K, but also a complete do-over of the intervening 40 years, during which his entire belligerent race was driven to extinction. Boris plans to effect this massive mulligan by traveling back in time to assassinate a young K. To prevent this, J has to preventively travel to '69 himself, where he partners with a young K (Josh Brolin, not younger enough, but doing a fair TLJ impersonation) and hustles against time to hunt down Boris.
Is this the '80s or 2012? It's all quite Back to the Future, down to the involvement of Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment and a soundtrack theme song titled "Back in Time," with Miami rapper Pitbull replacing Huey Lewis and the News. The time-travel gimmick has at least the potential to be something more than a Hail Mary to save a tired property here, though, as there has always been a touch of retro-futurism about the MIB movies. "It wasn't the best time for your people," J is warned as a black man traveling into the vicinity of the MLK assassination, but Martin Lawrence's Black Knight had about as much to say about race relations as MIB3 does.
Despite such ubiquitous timidity, one can pluck out a few pleasing distractions here. Special-effects man Rick Baker, whose workshop was responsible for the previous MIB creatures, puts together a colorful bestiary in a Chinese-restaurant shootout, which also provides an opportunity for some good green-screen slapstick. The great Michael Stuhlbarg has a part as an extraterrestrial visitor who has the gift and curse of being, at any given moment, able to calculate the probability of every possible outcome of a situation, in every single butterfly-effect chain of events, leaving him a knot of elation and hypochondriac paranoia. Can even he conceive of a marketplace where the bland formula of MIB3 won't be rewarded? It's a long shot.