I have really distinct memories of seeing the first Men in Black (1997) movie fifteen years ago. My aunt and uncle, who I considered the coolest grown-ups I knew, were watching my younger brother and I for the weekend and took us to the movies. Josh thought Will Smith was the coolest grown-up ever and because our initials were J and K, we got a lot of mileage out of the agents’ names for weeks to come. Seeing Men in Black III a full decade after the last installment in the series did not tarnish my childhood memories. This new film offers familiar characters and jokes, while still delivering a well-constructed plot that stands on its own, sans nostalgia.

Actually, nostalgia, or the ache of old wounds, underlies much of the plot as Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) has to reface a monster, Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement), who he put behind bars (in a prison on the moon!) over 40 years ago. Something happened on the case that changed him forever, but because he is the strong, silent type, his partner, Agent J (Will Smith), doesn’t know how to help. The silence has worn away at the men’s 14-year partnership, reaching a breaking point. The next day, Agent K disappears and Agent J figures out that Boris has not only escaped from lunar prison, he’s gone back in time to kill K in the fight they had in 1969. In order to save K, and the planet, J has to travel back and help young K (Josh Brolin) save the case and himself.

Along the way, the audience is treated to some pretty solid bits. Lady Gaga is an alien, but, oddly enough, Andy Warhol (Bill Hader) is not. J has to deal with racism circa 1969 (possibly too glibly, but it is a comedy). The “Miracle Mets” serve as a clue, as does the popular club The Factory. Even with all the references, the time travel does not weigh down the story. The timeline within the 1969 portion of the film is very tight, so there’s not enough time for over-wrought or excessive jokes and that works beautifully.

The concise structure of the plot is probably the film’s biggest asset. It does just enough work to get audiences familiarized with the characters and settings again, then dives right into the mystery at hand. Occasionally there are nods to old jokes, but the film does not rest on the laurels of the first Men in Black movies. The action doesn’t lag and the disaster J and K are trying to avert is interesting, but works best to support a genuinely engaging character story about a difficult May-December partnership. Plus, the end carries an emotional twist I did not see coming, but without lingering on it in a heavy-handed way.

Tommy Lee Jones is in surprisingly little of the film, mostly working to establish his character again before he disappears. As Young K, Josh Brolin is a ringer for Jones, however. He nails the mannerisms, while also bringing youth to the character before the incident that made him so stoic. While I don’t quite buy him as a 29 year-old, his performance was fun to watch. Will Smith carries the bulk of the movie with his trade-mark charm. He also has some emotional scenes that he performs well in. Emma Thompson plays the new boss, Agent O, but the part was not exactly a stretch for her immense talent. As in the other MIB movies, character actors play an array of strange creatures adding a richness to the world of the film. There are some questionable depictions of minorities woven into the alien characters, however, that could have used some revision or more thought. By far the best alien is Giffin (Michael Stuhlbarg) whose earnestness and ability to see multiple futures greatly assist the agents.

The special effects are the mixture of high-tech and just bizarre that I remember from the original films, but my favorite was seeing the passage of time from the perspective of J falling off the Chrysler Building. For a science fiction movie, the effects are nothing really spectacular, but as someone who prefers plot to gadgets, I didn’t feel like I was missing out.

Overall, Men in Black III was a surprisingly good third installment to the series. For its well-structured plot and genuine movie fun, I rate it 4/5 stars.

Men in Black III was written by David Koepp based on the comic by Lowell Cunningham and was directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. It runs 103 minutes and is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, and brief suggestive content.