How long can a franchise lie fallow before it belongs to the past, and a sequel no longer persuades us that it's cut from the same cloth as earlier material? At what point does the urgency of "What happens next?" fade into the idle curiosity of "Where are they now?" The first of these questions is the natural subject of a sequel; the second though, is the territory of "sequels."
There is clearly a question of time, not just quality in this distinction. None of the Rocky or Raiders sequels are in the same league as the originals, but the two latter-day "sequels" are in a different category from the earlier ones. With such "sequels" we rightfully expect less. They are more like reunions than continuations. This influences me to go easier on such films.
Men in Black II came five years after the original (clearly within the sequel statute of limitations) which only made its ineptitude a worse disappointment. Now, a decade later, we have Men in Black 3. The very choice of an Arabic numeral 3, not a Roman numeral III, is a subtle disconnect that suggests the film as a "sequel," not a sequel. Ten years seems to be long enough.
Alas, ten minutes is long enough to establish that "where they are now" is not a very interesting place. Happily, the movie soon changes the question to "Where were they then?" and takes a turn for the better. With that said, it doesn't approach the witty and energetic original, and though it's better than the lousy MIB II, that's setting the bar low. Take it or leave it.
MIB 3 opens with a prison break involving a gratuitous bit of jiggle and giggle, some leering prison guards, a high body count and a formidable outlaw-biker type alien villain. Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement of the comedy duo Flight of the Conchords) is an intimidating villain presence. Between Rick Baker's makeup and strong visual and sound effects, he's certainly icky and inhuman enough—but aren't these movies supposed to be, you know, funny?
Doesn't anyone involved remember what a scream Vincent D'Onofrio was as Edgar the bug? Though Boris gets a couple of nice moments (notably a scene in which he plays dual versions of himself), his performance is mostly wasted potential.
Then we catch up with the Men in Black, still keeping the world safe from aliens and the knowledge thereof. There's no joy here anymore: Agents J and K lack chemistry; their relationship consists of K (Tommy Lee Jones) being gloomily stoic and J (Will Smith) ragging on him about his gloomy stoicism and wondering what happened to make him that way. It's a plot point, of sorts, but that doesn't make it entertaining.
A funeral for absent MIB honcho Zed (played in previous installments by the troubled Rip Torn) offers an opportunity for a whimsical alien rendition of "Amazing Grace" and an unfunny, taciturn "eulogy" by K. There's a gooey scene in a Chinese restaurant with lots of liquidated aliens, and plodding gags about which celebrities du jour are not of this world.
As in the last sequel, the MIB lack the covert finesse of the original film, and use their memory-wiping neuralyzers way too casually—though this does offer a couple of the movie's better jokes as J tries to make the world a better place while covering up close encounters. Still, before the first act is over it's clear the whole routine is exhausted.