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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Men in Black II (review)

Still in Black

Comedy is hard. Science fiction comedy is harder. Men in Black nailed it, though, by tossing just about all the clichés of 75 years of pulp SF (and pulp cop stories, too) into a meat grinder and extruding something new and tasty and greater than the sum of its parts, kinda like your mom’s meatloaf. Maybe not so good for you, but pretty damn yummy, and ever better reheated the next day. This was a movie made for endless reviewing, one that just gets better the more you watch it.

Sequels are hard. Science fiction sequels are a bitch. Every once in a rare while, we get an Empire Strikes Back or an Aliens, a sequel that expands and deepens the original, a sequel better than the original. Usually, alas, we get Highlander II.
Men in Black II is, thankfully, no Highlander II. But it ain’t no Aliens, neither. It is, in fact, very much like your little brother who, inexplicably, doesn’t like your mom’s meatloaf, and so he mushes it up with the mashed potatoes and pushes it around on his plate, sincerely believing that this will fool your mom into thinking he ate some of it. MIBII is the same old meatloaf, but now mushed up with the potatoes and maybe a few green beans and rearranged on the plate. Tasty enough, sure, but it didn’t need the mushing and the pushing. The unadulterated original was just fine.

You can go far on the undeniable charms of Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith, but not that far. And the fact that their charisma was a huge part of what made the original such a success is part of what makes the sequel less than entirely satisfying. Agent K (Jones: Space Cowboys, Small Soldiers) completed a nice character arc in Episode I: He lost one partner, trained a new one, and then decided he’d had enough, too. He had served his purpose, of introducing both us and Agent J (Smith: The Legend of Bagger Vance, Enemy of the State) to the secret work of the MIB and the hidden world of alien refugees and intergalactic intrigue that exists alongside our everyday one. But in attempt to recapture the lightning in a bottle that was Mr. Jones and Mr. Smith’s electrifying chemistry, K had to be rewound, brought back into a situation from which he had logically and entertainingly extricated himself. Sequels should go forward, not backward.

The opportunity to move forward is even presented, and then discarded. J’s new partner, T, is played by the hilariously deadpan Patrick Warburton (The Emperor’s New Groove, The Apartment Complex), surely the ideal choice for an MIB agent. But he’s pushed aside unceremoniously in order to return K from his neuralized exile (where he was, of course, conveniently miserable) in an attempt to rekindle the K/J relationship. And so they, as a team, have to be rewound, too, back to J as a neophyte and K as the mentor. But we’ve already seen J, here, as clearly one of the most respected and senior MIB agents. So we’re back to a dynamic that was previously put to rest.

Lara Flynn Boyle as the alien baddie Serleena may run around in lingerie to, I’m sure, the certain delight of the teenage male target audience, but she’s no Vincent D’Onofrio, who lurched through MIB like his body was the wrong size for him, as indeed it was for the extraterrestrial insect inhabiting the “Edgar suit.” Boyle knows far too well the reaction the lack of covering her character’s human suit will provoke to ever be convincing as the creature from halfway across the galaxy that’s supposed to be on the inside. She may titillate the boys, but she’s not funny.

MIB Chief Z (Rip Torn: Wonder Boys, The Insider) and the alien pawnbroker Jeebs (Tony Shalhoub: Thirteen Ghosts, Spy Kids) and Frank the talking ET pug dog are back, like K, mushed and pushed around on the plate, doing more of the same and utterly failing to tickle on the subatomic level like they did before. There are laughs here and there, but they’re one-liners, zingers tacked onto a basically unamusing and uninteresting situation. Everything that was surprising and odd and funny about MIB is either repeated verbatim or entirely absent here — the idea of the MIB agency in and of itself isn’t funny anymore if something new isn’t done with it, and the idea that the weirdness of New York is due to alien influence is completely forgotten.

MIBII is watered down MIB, more of the same. What was the point? Besides cashing in on a known quantity, that is?


MPAA: rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and some provocative humor

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

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