It's been 10 years since the last Men in Black film hit screens, just about enough time in the summer popcorn environment (and in the absence of the alien hunters' memory-erasing doohickey) for audiences to forget just how wretched the last sequel was. This second sequel feels like a regrouping on Will Smith's part, a return to a popular role after a four-year absence following the audacious suicide-by-jellyfish misfire Seven Pounds. He apparently hasn't shaken his loftier dramatic ambitions, however, as the series takes an unexpected and ill-advised turn toward pathos.
Instead of simply repeating the mixture of sci-fi and comedy that made the first film a success, Smith's Agent J sets off in search of a backstory for his partner, the tragic event that turned Tommy Lee Jones' Agent K into a taciturn grouch. He leaps back in time to 1969, where he teams up with K's younger self (Josh Brolin, doing a dead-on Jones impression) to hunt down an alien badass played by a growling Jemaine Clement.
Director Barry Sonnenfeld and the four screenwriters who had a hand in the film seem to have gotten lost somewhere in the time stream; the overt racism that Smith faces after his leap feels less like New York in 1969 than Louisiana 1955 (and lends the same sour, angry tinge that hurt the abysmal Wild Wild West), though eventually Mad Men is settled on as the model. The plot turns convoluted but shallow, jettisoning alien jokes for a tearjerker finale that contradicts what we know from the first film — but you've forgotten that by now, right?