Men In Black Ii

on July 03, 2002 by Wade Major
   Something old, something new. That's the simple formula for success with which "Men in Black II" has been brewed, delivering a sequel that's more safe than inventive presumably because the filmmakers would rather be safe than sorry. Just what this means for audiences is a bit murky--what for some will seem a disappointing retread of the original, others will view as a welcome chance to sit down for another spin with the Earth-saving, alien-busting secret agents and their bug-eyed, freaked-out, otherworldly friends. Either way, no one is likely to be bowled over by "Men in Black II." Though there is much to like, there's very little to love in a movie that was clearly orchestrated to follow the path of least resistance so as to insure optimum protection of a very large budget.

   The "something new" is mostly related to the passage of time. Five years of experience have made Agent Jay (Will Smith) a seasoned old pro at such things as protecting the universe and mitigating alien activity on earth. The wide-eyed, loose-lipped, impetuous young agent so beloved by audiences in the first movie is sadly all but gone. Agent Kay (Tommy Lee Jones), meanwhile, lives a happy life as a rural postmaster with no recollection of his previous life, having been "neuralized" at the end of the previous picture. Most everything else, sadly, falls into the category of "something old."

   The key alien characters are all veterans of the original movie--the worm guys, Frank the pug, Tony Shalhoub's Jeebs--as is the very familiar plot. Once again, the Earth is trapped in the crux of an intergalactic power struggle that has lured the evil Serleena (Lara Flynn Boyle) stateside to search for something known as "The Light of Zartha," presumably taken care of decades previously by none other than Kay. Only now he has no recollection of what he did with it.

   Despite the handful of obvious tweaks--a lingerie-clad Lara Flynn Boyle in place of cockroach-leaking Vincent D'Onofrio (though the inner-alien is just as nasty), the initial role-switch between Kay and Jay, a potential love interest for Jay (Rosario Dawson) and some updated technology--it's basically the same plot. Director Barry Sonnenfeld along with writers Robert Gordon ("Galaxy Quest") and Barry Fanaro ("Kingpin") have gone to great lengths to inject a host of clever jokes, sight-gags and cameos (at least one of which should have audiences reeling), but it ultimately amounts to little more than fresh frosting on a stale cake.

   The revised Kay/Jay axis is also somewhat problematic. While there is some definite mileage in having Kay play the naïve, awestruck inductee that Smith played in the first film, audiences' empathy is still on Smith's side. What was new to him in the first film was also new to the audience. And what is familiar to him now is very familiar to them.

   A few new alien baddies have also been added to the mix--a giant subway monster and a two-headed street-freak played by MTV fixture Johnny Knoxville--but it all feels a bit too cautious, too superficial, as though no one wanted to make any changes of substance to the sure-footed structure of "Men in Black." Indeed, the one original collaborator whose presence is most missed is the one who was most invisible the first time around: the man who authored that structure in the first place, screenwriter Ed Solomon.

   If there's a void here, it's Solomon's playful sense of the absurd, the manner in which his scripts wink at the audience to let them in on the joke. Even the most ostentatious blend of action, effects and art direction can't substitute for the kind of clever, buoyant writing that is Solomon's stock and trade.

   Despite such shortcomings, "Men in Black II" doesn't fall on its face. It stumbles and trips a few times but manages to keep its footing long enough for audiences to walk away mostly satisfied. At scarcely 88 minutes, including more than six minutes of front- and end-titles, that's not a difficult trick--the movie moves so quickly that audiences won't have time to overthink the things that make no sense--but it is an effective trick. At this rate, though, the filmmakers may not have many tricks left to play it so safely should they decide to move ahead with a third film. Starring Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Rosario Dawson, Johnny Knoxville, Rip Torn, Tony Shalhoub and Lara Flynn Boyle. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. Written by Robert Gordon and Barry Fanaro. Produced by Walter F. Parkes and Laurie MacDonald. A Columbia release. Science Fiction/Comedy. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and some provocative humor. Running time: 88 min

Tags: Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Rosario Dawson, Johnny Knoxville, Rip Torn, Tony Shalhoub, Lara Flynn Boyle, Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, Written by Robert Gordon, Barry Fanaro, Produced by Walter F. Parkes, Laurie MacDonald, A Columbia release, Science Fiction/Comedy, action, art direction, shortcomings, problematic, superficial, rural

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