Men in Black II (2002)

D: Barry Sonnenfeld
S: Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones

Like Star Trek: Insurrection, Men in Black II plays more like an extended episode of a television show than a major motion picture. It offers continuation, not development; creating a new set of aliens for its heroes to battle but not moving forward with the concept or breaking significant new ground with its characters. The film follows the structure of Men in Black as closely as it can, employing the gimmick of reversing the dynamic of the leads as agent J (Will Smith) is compelled to bring agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) out of retirement to battle an evil alien (Lara Flynn Boyle). Because K has been neuralised and lost his memories of his years of service with MIB, the audience is invited to share Jones' amazement at the sights and sounds of a world filled with alien visitors and invaders just as we shared Smith's the last time. The gambit does not really work. We are not amazed, and we are only faintly amused by the repetition of all the first film's major gags, right down to the rogues' gallery of aliens seeking entry to the earth at the MIB immigration desk, the talking dog, and the guy whose head grows back when shot off (the ever-engaging Tony Shaloub). The film has much the same sense of humour and everyone is putting in the effort at about the level they did last time, but we really have seen it all before, and how much you enjoy it will very much depend on just how great you thought it was first time out. The success of Men in Black was a combination of the relative freshness of the concept, the popularity and contrast in acting styles of and between Smith and Jones, the fact that it parodied films like Independence Day and The X Files, and the fact that it had dynamic advertising campaign spearheaded by a terrific teaser trailer. Men in Black II relies entirely on your affection for Men in Black.

The quirky humour of the original film originated with the comic book, but found its form largely because of the creative collusion between Sonnenfeld and writer Ed Solomon (Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure). Though screenwriter Robert Gordon must have seemed the right man for the job after penning Galaxy Quest, he and television writer Barry Fanaro have come up with a screenplay which is less than inspired. The plotting is quick but loose and it is prone to lapses in logic, improperly motivated twists, and a reliance on set piece gags which stop the story rather than contribute to its development. Its villain is also ultimately ineffective. Boyle's reign of terror lacks narrative urgency, and seems to have been stitched into the final cut in peculiar ways, stretching her occupation of MIB headquarters over far too much screen time by intercutting it with Smith and Jones' quest to find the object she seeks. There is no real sense of mounting threat here, and her repeated attacks upon the heroes become tedious. The writers even resort to tossing in chase scenes to sustain narrative momentum.

Though the performances by Smith and Jones are not bad, the characters are more or less uninteresting, largely because of the unwise though game attempt to move Smith in particular in a new direction (the film's only attempt at actual development). As the movie opens, he has become a feared veteran MIB agent, jaded and drained in a way which makes him faintly like Jones in the first film. A budding romance with alien-incident eyewitness Rosario Dawson seems to offer a chance for change, but things settle into a more familiar rhythm as the movie progresses and such character developments are tossed out the window by the time the film gets to its strange final scene. Jones meanwhile is initially kind of fun as the incredulous civilian, but the interplay with Smith generates no energy as the characters no longer bounce off one another in the time-honoured buddy movie fashion. The supporting roles are filled adequately, with Boyle suitably menacing throughout and Rip Torn again a laugh as MIB commander Zed. David Cross (Scary Movie 2, Ghost World) makes a surprising return cameo in one of the funnier gag roles while Johnny Knoxville (TV's Jackass) is a fairly unappealing and unfunny evil sidekick.

In truth, Men in Black was never a masterpiece, so it is not really all that surprising that when more or less the same ingredients are served up again, they have lost their fresh taste. While harmless enough as summer entertainment goes (particularly in the year of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones), it is also as equally bland as the next summer blockbuster. In 1997, Men in Black seemed to be the proverbial breath of fresh air, especially when pitted against terrible franchise pieces like The Lost World: Jurassic Park and the excreable Batman and Robin. Men in Black II is not terrible, nor is it strictly lazy. It is certainly better than Wild Wild West, but not as good a sequel as Addams Family Values in which Sonnenfeld found enough energy to enlarge upon and in some respects improve upon the original's strong points while taking the characters in new directions. Sonnenfeld is a director who, with the aid of production design and slippery camerawork, is still able to keep you watching and the film will probably rack up a reasonable following as the years go by (in conjunction with the original, of course), but in spite of the long delay between episodes, this is not a franchise which is going anywhere interesting: it is holding course and riding a waning tide.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.