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Men in Black II   C-

Columbia Pictures

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Writers: Robert Gordon, Barry Fanaro (based on the comic by Lowell Cunningham)
Cast: Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Rip Torn, Lara Flynn Boyle, Johnny Knoxville, Rosario Dawson, Tony Shalhoub, Patrick Warburton.

Review by Rob Vaux

There is nothing quite so depressing as the mediocre sequel of a wonderful original. Men in Black, the comic sci-fi adventure featuring a secret organization of alien-busting do-gooders took the world by surprise in 1997, and the prerelease publicity for the second go-'round gave every indication that it would be just as much fun. We should have known better. Men in Black II strives to recapture the first film's irreverent spirit, but ends up as a mildly diverting carbon copy.

The letdown starts right away, as we return to Will Smith's Agent J patrolling the streets of New York without the guidance of his retired mentor K (Tommy Lee Jones). The Fresh Prince has never looked so awkward or unsure of himself as he does in these opening scenes. Smith is always an effervescent presence, a joy to watch no matter what he's in. Seeing him struggling to work up sufficient energy for the part is a thoroughly frustrating experience. He gets little help from Barry Sonnenfeld, an often-funny director who has lost his touch of late. J spends the first 20 minutes working his way through several MIB-style scrapes (and ditching a new partner) before a standard-issue villain shows up in the form of Lara Flynn Boyle's tentacled alien babe. She's out to destroy the world, and only K -- now working in a Massachusetts post office -- has the knowledge to stop her.

Part of the problem with the setup is that it doesn't expand upon the things we already know. The first film sharply contrasted its eye-popping universe of hidden aliens with the agents' unflappable been-there-done-that ennui. This time, there are no surprises. We know what the critters look like, and we've seen the high-tech gadgets that the MIBs use. Without something new to wow us, Men in Black II can't work the clever gags it so clearly wants to. The jokes all feel a beat off, lingering longer than they should. You can sense the funny ideas at work, but they never seem to come out right. Instead, the film falls back on visual effects, using CGI and makeup to hold itself together. Unfortunately, without more genuine wit or a better sense of character, they're just empty images. Watching Johnny Knoxville argue with his second head might have sounded cute in the pitch meeting, but it plays like a promo reel for a second-tier horror flick. Such images further slow the already spotty story, and even at a scant 88 minutes, Men in Black II labors to hold our attention.

A few bright spots exist. Smith and Jones still work marvelously together, and the former shakes out of his lethargy once his co-star finally shows up. Tony Shalhoub makes a fun curtain call as Jeebs, the sleazy pawnshop owner with the regenerating head, and the Worm Guys -- those skinny slackers hanging out by the coffee maker -- inspire a few chuckles when they put the moves on J's potential paramour (Rosario Dawson). But even these elements feel recycled; they work here not because they're brilliant, but because they were great in the first film and still have some mileage left.

For basic watchability, at least, Men in Black II passes muster. Nothing in the movie overtly offends us, and its breezy tone will keep the audience from actively hating it. Would that this were enough. For a franchise that started out on such a high note, this second entry feels like a big step down. Sonnenfeld and company mean well, but they just can't capture lightning a second time. They know the steps, but the rhythm persistently eludes them. Only the advertising seems a cut above: it all looks much better in the trailers than in the feature-length flesh. You'll probably see worse films than Men in Black II this year, but won't see many as disappointing.

Review published 07.07.2002.

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