Men in Black II (United States, 2002)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Men in Black II would be a thoroughly entertaining affair if it wasn't for one thing: the plot. The annoying and pointless storyline is a constant irritant because it diverts our attention from the real reason to see this movie - the easygoing chemistry between actors Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith. These two slide so smoothly into their odd couple, buddy roles that an enjoyable motion picture could be made by having them sit next to each other and trade quips. Unfortunately, Men in Black II decides to surround these characters with a narrative that is so limp and idiotic that it can't even stand up when judged by the standards of comedies, let alone those of science fiction adventures.

Aside from the Jones/Smith camaraderie, one could easily argue that Men in Black II's most prominent asset is its brevity. This movie clocks in at 80 minutes (!) - a laudable trait in an era when films tend to be bloated and overlong. Then again, the subject matter of Men in Black II is so anemic than it can't effectively sustain even its skinny running length, so, unlike its crisp predecessor, it feels protracted. That's a sure sign that director Barry Sonnenfeld didn't have much to work with.

One of the film's supposed selling points is its special effects. However, the CGI work - as has too often become the case in recent years - calls attention to itself. The chief monster, played in human form by Lara Flynn Boyle, is as obviously a special effect as any creature to come along in the last five-or-so years. The rest of the aliens look like Star Wars rejects. These kinds of visual effects were a lot more impressive in 1997, when the original Men in Black arrived in multiplexes. Back then, CGI wasn't as all-pervasive as it is today. Then, its use seemed creative. Now, it seems lazy.

The film opens with MiB Agent Jay (Will Smith) taking an unorthodox ride through the New York City subway system courtesy of a large worm-like creature affectionately called "Jeff". Once that job is done, Jay, now paired up with a talking dog, must investigate a murder committed by an alien. There's one witness - a pretty waitress named Rita (Rosario Dawson), who is about to be introduced to the truth about extraterrestrial life on Earth. It turns out that a very dangerous alien named Serleena (Lara Flynn Boyle) is on the loose, looking for something called the "Light of Zartha". MiB Chief Zed (Rip Torn) informs Jay that the only one who knows the truth about the Light of Zartha is ex-Agent Kay (Tommy Lee Jones), who is currently living a comfortable life in anonymity as a postal worker. Jay pays Kay a visit, de-neuralizes him, and teams up with him. Together, they go after Serleena.

The movie delivers what most people will be expecting it to deliver. Will Smith has his share of very funny moments. Tommy Lee Jones is the consummate straight man. There are aliens everywhere - big, small, furry, not-so-furry... If there could be said to be a "Men in Black" formula, this movie follows it rigorously. That's one of Men in Black II's chief problems - this is not a spontaneous joyride into science fiction comedy; it's a product. It was put together with one thing in mind - bringing the same people together on-screen in the hope that the box-office numbers will be similar.

As villains go, Lara Flynn Boyle is an especially bad choice. (She also wasn't the producers' first choice. The role was originally awarded to Famke Janssen, but she had to back out after one day of filming.) She's not bitchy enough. Serleena needs to be played with an over-the-top campiness that Flynn Boyle is incapable of delivering. Michael Jackson, in an unbilled cameo, is more frightening. Some "old friends" make return appearances, including Rip Torn as Zed and Tony Shalhoub as Jeebs. One character who doesn't come back is Linda Fiorentino's Elle (although, for anyone who cares, her absence is explained). Also missing are shots of the World Trade Center. Any visible evidence of the Twin Towers was digitally erased (and the location of the climactic battle, which was to have taken with the Trade Center in the background, was changed). The same is not true of product placements for Sprint and Burger King, which are featured with irritating prominence.

Viewed as a cartoon come to life, Men in Black II does the job, albeit barely. It's not nearly as fresh or enjoyable as its predecessor, but there are enough high points to keep this from being a complete waste of time. For those who want more of the same - go ahead, throw down your eight bucks. Men in Black II took five years and a number of false starts to reach the screen because of behind-the-scenes difficulties. Hopefully, no matter how much money this movie makes, those troubles will prevent there from being a Men in Black III. This franchise has already run out of steam. Let the Men in Black loosen their ties and rest in peace.

Men in Black II (United States, 2002)

Run Time: 1:20
U.S. Release Date: 2002-07-03
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1