‘Men in Black 3’ takes Will Smith back to the past

THE TIME TRAVEL romp "Men In Black 3" returns us to a previous century, all the way back to that bygone era when Will Smith had yet to make a sequel.

The year was 1997, Smith was coming off the cheese ball hit "Independence Day" and about to make what seemed like just another alien invasion movie, adapted from Lowell Cunningham’s Men in Black comic books/graphic novels.

The movie paired Smith with legendary sourpuss Tommy Lee Jones, an idea that was either ingenious or terrible. Some $250 million later, the public had weighed in: The idea was ingenious.

Smith and Jones gained immediate entry into the movie chemistry hall of fame. Smith had been straight man to Martin Lawrence in "Bad Boys," but now uncorked his natural ebullience and turned it into a rubber ball that bounced off the stoic, granite face of the world-weary Jones. Opposites attracted — black and white, young and old, the rookie and the veteran, up-tempo and down, Smith’s wholesome urban hip-hop and Jones’ Texas twang. The playful screenplay (illegal aliens) offered tasty roles for Vincent D’Onofrio and Linda Fiorentino.

You understand why Smith, after "Seven Pounds" (the actual amount of money it made in the U.K.), wants to crawl into a wormhole and get back to ’97 — why the time-travel scenario had such appeal.

In "MiB 3" an alien bad guy named Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) escapes from prison and travels back in time to kill Agent K (Jones) in 1969, the year of their first encounter, when K not only imprisoned Boris but girded the earth with invasion-repellent.

Agent J (Smith) then follows Boris through time to save K, leading to the movie’s one consistently good joke — Josh Brolin plays the younger K, and does a dead-on impression of fellow Texan Tommy Lee Jones (perfected on the set of "No Country for Old Men"), which turns out to be much better than his impression of fellow Texan George Bush.

Wait ... if K was killed in ’69, and he never indoctrinated J into the service, how is J in a position to travel back in time to save him? This is another advantage of the movie’s time travel scenario — it’s built around the idea that all potential scenarios exist simultaneously in parallel universes. Parallel universes — a screenwriter’s best friend!

Alas, in the parallel universes of cable TV, Netflix and plain old memory, "MIB 3" must stand next to the original, with all its comic snap, crackle and pop. Smith tries hard here, but that’s part of the problem — beads of sweat are all over this thing.

The movie strains to repeat the beats of original, and misses an enormous opportunity to make hay with the 1969 setting — an age-of-Obama African-American going back to Nixonian times. Smith has a funny driving-while-black scene, and the thread suddenly drops. There’s another inventive scene with Bill Hader as Andy Warhol, and that’s it.

Back to the corkscrewed time travel plot, and an 11th inning grab for tear-jerking sentiment, which seems out of place.

More than anything, you feel as if you’re sitting in stale air, despite the 3-D upgrade (the presentation is excellent). The franchise needs new creative blood, like the Joss Whedon-infused "The Avengers," or the Chris Nolan "Batmans."

Or Smith needs to go back in time and kill "MiB 2," and we can all pretend we haven’t seen this sequel before.

Contact movie critic Gary Thompson at 215-854-5992 or thompsg@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "Keep It Reel," at www.philly.com/keepitreel.

REVIEW | ss 1/2

Men in Black 3

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. With Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Emma Thompson, Michael Stuhlbarg, Bill Hader, Alice Eve, David Rasche. Distributed by Columbia Pictures.
Running time: 106 minutes
Parent’s guide: PG-13

Playing at: Area theaters

Men in Black 3

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. With Emma Thompson, Jemaine Clement, Josh Brolin, Michael Stuhlbarg, Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones. Distributed by Sony Pictures.

Running time: 1 hours, 46 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for sci-fi action violence, and brief suggestive content).