- - Thursday, May 24, 2012

‘Men in Black 3” marks the third weekend this month that Earth has been invaded by aliens — following “The Avengers” and “Battleship” — thus making failed extraterrestrial takeovers an official journalistic trend. It’s as if Earth was recently ranked at the top of this year’s list of must-invade interstellar hotspots by “Galactic Conqueror” magazine.

The good news is that Will Smith is on hand to respond. As one of Hollywood’s most practiced defenders against alien threats — in “Independence Day” as well as two previous “Men in Black” films — he’s demonstrated his effectiveness and reliability in situations that require swift action to repel space invaders in about two hours, give or take. You hire Mr. Smith because you know he can get the job done.

Which is exactly what he does here, no more, no less. “Men in Black 3” is an exercise in competence — amiable, enjoyable and entirely forgettable.

This time around, the otherworldly conquest is led by the Boglodites, who beach themselves over downtown Manhattan in warships that resemble giant floating jellyfish, like the product of some cosmic red tide. They’ve turned up as a result of some time-travel shenanigans by Boris the Animal (an unrecognizable Jemaine Clement), a particularly nasty Boglodite with one arm, a detachable buglike helper that lives in his palm, and bony eyebrows that flare like grabby fingers when he’s upset.

As the movie begins, Boris breaks out of a lunar prison, intent on exacting revenge on Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), an aging agent with the Men in Black, who handle Earth’s extraterrestrial affairs. Agent K is responsible for Boris’ missing appendage and his stint in lunar lockup. But the trade he wants isn’t exactly equal. K took his arm; Boris intends to wipe K from most of history while paving the way for his fellow Boglodites. And that’s where Mr. Smith, playing Agent K’s longtime partner, Agent J, comes in. Boris ditches the present for 1969, and J follows, quickly partnering up with a younger version of K played by Josh Brolin.

Director Barry Sonnenfeld makes the most of the retro sci-fi period setting: The movie boasts a gentle space-age grooviness — its design concept, which evokes a sort of cheery midcentury modernist cool, suggests a cross between “Mad Men” and Epcot. The hippie-dippy alien strangeness of the late ‘60s is also a recurring joke: There’s a saying that the past is another country, but in this case it’s practically another planet.

The exception is the young Agent K, whose mannerisms are uncannily familiar. Mr. Brolin has mastered the grim stare and grouchy deadpan employed to such great effect by Mr. Jones, whom he channels with spooky precision.

He also manages to retain Mr. Jones‘ comic chemistry with Mr. Smith, who, as usual, is cosmically appealing. Mr. Smith is not stretching himself here, but he engenders such good will that it hardly matters. At this point, the actor’s charm is practically weaponized, which may explain why he’s such an effective repellent against slimy, extraplanetary bores.

★★★

TITLE: “Men in Black 3”

CREDITS: Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld; screenplay by Etan Cohen, David Koepp, Jeff Nathanson, and Michael Soccio

RATING: PG-13 for slimy sci-fi violence, language

RUNNING TIME: 106 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS