Men in Black II

(2002) ** 1/2 Pg-13
88 min. Columbia. Director: Barry Sonnenfeld. Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Lara Flynn Boyle, Johnny Knoxville, Rosario Dawson.

Men in Black II, unsurprisingly, lacks the joyful inventiveness of the original. Conventional wisdom dictates that sequels are not meant to be inventive; instead, they are exercises in maintenance. On that level, Men in Black II is a reasonably entertaining "episode" in the MiB "series."

Screenwriters Robert Gordon and Barry Fanaro take Ed Solomon's superior work from the first film and--with the instincts of an advertising firm--plunder the lowest-common-denominator material (consider the product placement saturation, and it's a real ad-venture). In turn, returning director Barry Sonnenfeld amplifies the reheated gags while wrangling his above the title Men in Black--Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones--and newcomer aliens Lara Flynn Boyle and Johnny Knoxville. Compared to the loose-limbed original, Men in Black II is overproduced and underfed. Satire is replaced with garden-variety spoofery and and an over-reliance on talking creatures, expert makeup and stuntwork are sorely overshadowed by garish CGI, and fast-paced noise supplants palpable menace.

In Men in Black time, four years have passed (more like five in the real world, thanks to the ballooning costs of hit sequels). Agent Kay (Jones) put himself out to pasture at the end of the first film, so Agent Jay (Smith) is kicking alien ass pretty much on his own at the beginning of the picture (Patrick Warburton plays one of the many partners Jay has deemed unworthy since Kay's retirement). Kay's now a postal worker--a funny gag undercutting Jones's craggy deadpan--but he must be deneuralized to unlock a mystery: what is destructive Kylothian root creature Serleena (in the siren guise of Boyle's lingerie model exterior) after? The answer involves innocent bystander Rita (Rosario Dawson), who turns Jay's universe upside-down.

Aside from the clanking entertainment value of it all, this amounts to an unsubtle rehash of the first film's themes of the imposed loneliness of the heroic lifestyle and our puniness in a vast universe, the latter idea hammered home with jaw-dropping repetitiveness. Gordon and Fararo add the notion--put into Jones's mouth--that you are who you are, even if you forget for a while. I suppose this is meant to account for Agent Jay's rather sudden reversion to clumsy, dumb-luck "efficiency" once Kay is back in the saddle, but this plot thread remains wispy subtext at best (at worst, of course, it's lazy screenwriting).

As for the cast, the returning regulars fare far better than the guest stars. Funny though it may sound, Jones's energy is lower here than in the first film, but his deadpan fits like an old shoe and the postal-worker warmup briefly converts him to a drill instructor by way of Sonnenfeld's beloved Martha Stewart. Smith, fresh from his Oscar nomination, brings more emotional gravitas and less jive-talking to his Agent Jay, and the occasional shading it provides is novel. Rip Torn's Zed continues to dispatch the MiB with gravelly charm. Boyle sounded like a good idea, but with little to do in human form (and vacuous lines), she fails to register. Neither Knoxville nor his gaudy special effect is particularly good; the sight gag of his rubbery, two-headed henchman swiftly becomes boring.

In the end, the fast-paced trifle that is Men in Black II provides enough chuckles and eye-candy and goofy cameos to do the job...just not very well. In the absence of the first film's rhythm, wit, and novelty, it's a typically lazy, diminishing-returns sequel.

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