Men in Black II
Screenplay : Robert Gordon and Barry Fanaro (story by Robert Gordon, based on the comic book by Lowell Cunningham)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Tommy Lee Jones (Agent Kay), Will Smith (Agent Jay), Rip Torn (Zed), Lara Flynn Boyle (Serleena), Rosario Dawson (Laura), Johnny Knoxville (Scard/Johnnie), Rosario Dawson (Rita), Patrick Warburton (Agent Tee)
The enormous success of 1997's Men in Black was due largely to its consistent ability to surprise us at every turn. An inventive comedy-thriller that made hash of paranoid conspiracy theories and science fiction tropes, it was a geek-dream summer movie, one you could laugh at and be thrilled by at the same time. There was always something either funny or bizarre (or both) around every corner, and it all seemed so loose and effortless that is was impossible not to enjoy it. It worked in the way too few summer movies do.
Now, five years later, most of the same team has reassembled for the long-in-waiting sequel, Men in Black II, and everything that worked in the first movie basically falls flat here. Of course, the biggest loss is that of surprise. Having seen all this before--the aliens in creative human disguises, the bustling atmosphere of the secret Men in Black headquarters, all manner of slimy appendages--retreading the same ground just isn't as fun. We realize that much of what is enjoyable about this material is being introduced to it, awaiting the next weird development. Now, it seems too routine, and there hasn't been enough new life injected into it to make up for that loss of revelation.
Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith return as Agents Kay and Jay, respectively, two of the mysterious Men in Black whose job is to monitor and control extraterrestrial activity on earth. The big joke, of course, is that aliens have been living among us in various guises for years, some of which are more obvious than others (the sequel's best joke is the prominent placement of a certain celebrity who even life-in-outer-space naysayers have a hard time denying is probably an alien).
Those who saw the first movie will remember that Agent Kay (Jones), the no-nonsense seasoned veteran, was neuralized at the end of the movie (meaning he had his memory erased). When Men in Black II opens, Agent Jay (Smith) is now the top dog, trying to break in new partners (one of whom is played by Seinfeld's Patrick Warburton) and not having much luck. After five years of being one of the anonymous Men in Black, Jay is starting to feel a bit lonely and at a loss in the universe.
Never fear, though, as a nefarious situation develops involving a multi-tentacled alien named Serleena that takes the shape of a Victoria's Secret model played by Lara Flynn Boyle. Serleena teams up with an earth-residing alien played by Jackass' Johnny Knoxville (who's not nearly as funny as one would hope, even with two heads) in her search for something called Zartha's Light, which may or may not be on earth and about which Kay may or may not hold important information.
Thus, Jay has to steal Kay away from his position at a Maine post office (staffed, not surprisingly, almost entirely by aliens, including one played by '80s rap master Biz Markie), give him his memory back, and try to stop Serleena. Along the way there are potential romantic developments between Jay and a waitress named Laura (Rosario Dawson). We know Jay is in love with her because, even though she witnesses an alien encounter, he can't bring himself to neuralize her because then she would forget about him, too.
Screenwriters Robert Gordon (Galaxy Quest) and Barry Fanaro (The Crew, Kingpin) go for a much more slap-sticky tone than the first movie, which results in the sequel being more hectic and less witty. The core of the first movie--the seasoned pro/rookie relationship between Jones and Smith--is completely lost here, and little is supplied to take its place. In fact, Jones doesn't show up until nearly half an hour into the movie, and his loss during that time is obvious. It's not that Will Smith can't hold the screen on his own without Jones, it's just that this material relies on their partnership, and the filmmakers make a crucial error in waiting so long to reunite them.
Director Barry Sonnenfeld, whose last big-budget summer movie was the special-effects-laden flop Wild Wild West (1999), doesn't seem to have learned much from that experience, as he again floods the screen with digital imagery and animatronic wizardry, but forgets much of the wit and charm that made the original movie such a winner. Several of the supporting characters from the first movie are given heftier screen time here, including Frank, an alien disguised as a talking pug (voiced by Tim Blaney), and the worm guys, who actually get to pack heat this time around, rather than just serve coffee. It's good to see them all again, but it's disheartening to see that, with all the talent and money invested here, a better movie couldn't have been made.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick