March 13 2013 12:00 AM

Josh Brolin is a terrific addition to the team in a hit-or-miss sequel

According to the Internet Movie Database, Will Smith's proposed upcoming projects include "Hancock II," "I, Robot II" and "Bad Boys III." That's two sequels to mediocre, utterly disposable films that were popular for a brief time and one follow-up to an unforgettably wretched movie that was immortalized (and mercilessly parodied) in Nick Frost and Simon Pegg's "Hot Fuzz." Perhaps, having missed out on Oscars for his dramatic work in "The Pursuit of Happyness" and "Seven Pounds" (the latter one of Smith's few box office underachievers), Smith has decided to spend the rest of his career at the recycling center.

The process begins with "Men in Black III," which arrives 10 years after "MIBII" and a whopping 15 years after the original. At least director Barry Sonnenfeld's first "Men in Black" was great fun, with Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as agents of a top-secret organization monitoring the activities of the various extraterrestrials that have managed to blend into modern society. If you don't remember much about the second installment, it's not because you were zapped by a neurolyzer: It was one of those "we're only in it for the money" projects, with a few witty ideas surrounded by excessive padding and scads of pointless visual effects.

After an unpromising first half-hour full of gross-out jokes and bland one-liners,  "III" does a passable job of restoring the franchise's sense of wackiness. Be forewarned that the plot, which involves changing destinies through time travel back to 1969, is a near-total mess: While Jones' Agent K is reasonably close to the age he should be, the rest of the movie's math would only work if Smith's Agent J was pushing 50 (Smith is 43 and looks about 10 years younger than that) and Emma Thompson's Agent O was well into her 60s (Thompson is 53, and has obviously reached the point at which major actresses take disposable, perfunctory roles strictly to bolster the bank account). Try to overlook 44-year-old Josh Brolin playing the supposedly 29-year-old version of Agent K, a sight that prompts Agent J to accurately note, "You've got city miles on you." And please don't notice the anachronism of characters in 1969 talking about Cape Canaveral, which would have then been known as Cape Kennedy.

Then again, it's probably best not to take anything too seriously in the "Men in Black" universe, in which UFOs routinely crash-land in Manhattan and seedy Chinese restaurants are not only operated by creatures from outer space, but are also serving dishes featuring creatures from outer space. "III" sends J and K off on the trail of Boris the Animal (Jermaine Clement, scowling and growling effectively), a hideous Boglodite who has escaped a lunar prison and somehow returned to Earth; Etan Cohen's screenplay, which reportedly was unfinished when the movie began shooting, frequently forgets to fill in important details. Boris, who lost his arm in a battle with K more than 40 years ago, plans to jump back to 1969, kill K and pave the way for a Boglodite takeover of Earth. So J naturally has to stop Boris, with a bit of offbeat assistance from a mellowed-out alien super-psychic (Michael Stuhlbarg), who turns out to be one of the movie's strongest comic assets.

Once J makes the leap back to the days of "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," Jones is sidelined for the majority of the movie, a strategy that might have been disastrous if Smith and Brolin didn't have their own entertainingly prickly chemistry. In fact, Brolin has little difficulty stealing the spotlight from Smith, who is content to recreate the Agent J character without adding much to it. Brolin, on the other hand, nails down Jones' dusty-dry delivery and low-key comic style superbly. He's a great boost to the picture, and so is the production design of Bo Welch, which makes 1969 Polaroid-picturesque. No wonder "III" is at its best in the Swinging Sixties and comparatively less than groovy in the present-day sequences that bookend the story.