Men in Black II

WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: A vicious alien, searching for the precious Light of Zartha, takes the form of a model and begins to lay waste to New York’s extra-terrestrial community. It’s down to the Men In Black to stop her, but Agent ‘J’ isn’t equipped to take on the task alone. Unfortunately for J, his legendary ex-colleague ‘K’ isn’t equipped either, since as far as he’s concerned he’s just a scarily efficient postal worker.

The Earth’s in peril again, this time from an alien called Serleena whose glamorous shell (Lara Flynn Boyle, wearing little more than a bra and pants) hides her true snake-like form and ruthless nature. She hooks up with her moronic two-headed cohort Scrad (Johnny Knoxville) and goes in search of the Light of Zartha, a precious entity that may or may not have left the planet twenty-five years previously.

Meanwhile, James Edwards (Will Smith), or simply ‘J’, already has his hands full keeping control of New York’s alien population, and his feelings of loneliness are not helped much by his low-watt partner T, who becomes the latest in a long line of ‘neuralyzed’ rejects. While Frank the talking pug isn’t much of an improvement, he does assist in the investigation of a mysterious killing in a pizza parlour witnessed by pretty waitress Laura (Rosario Dawson).

What J really needs is old friend and partner K (Tommy Lee Jones), since he’s the only man who knows what happened to the Light of Zartha; but he was neuralyzed some time ago and is now living a peaceful existence in the back of beyond as plain old Kevin Brown. J tries to revive K’s memories by showing him the alien life all around him, but before they can use Men In Black’s deneuralyzer to do the job properly, Serleena attacks the building, forcing them to seek help from old friends such as Tony Shalhoub’s Jeebs, the pawn shop owner constantly prone to (literally) losing his head.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that sequels, even really good ones such as Toy Story 2, are prone to repeating the plots of their originals. While there are elements of this in Men In Black II – J re-introducing K to the agency is a mirror image of the first film – it doesn’t feel like a re-run so much as a film consciously constructed around what audiences liked from Men In Black: Jeebs, Frank, the chopsy worms with whom Laura stays, the comically-sized weaponry, Rip Torn’s Z, but not Linda Fiorentino’s L whose absence is explained in a single sentence.

And thankfully, the sequel makes good use of Smith and Jones, even if their roles are reversed: J now the hard-ass expert, still wise-cracking, and K the initiate, still deadpanning magnificently no matter what’s thrown at him. Their chemistry helps us overlook the fact that the ‘Light of Zartha’ is a complete MacGuffin which sends us all around the houses when – if K knows as much as he seems to – most of the action sequences don’t need to happen at all (but where’s the fun in that?).

In this instance, then, familiarity doesn’t breed too much contempt; it’s rather nice to see the characters, creatures and cool gadgets again. However, Men In Black II has a more immediate problem in that its two story strands don’t marry up very well. Because Jones is such good, grumpy fun, the film instinctively wants to concentrate on K and the loss and subsequent retrieval of his memory. Fair enough, but the film only runs at 88 minutes, meaning that Serleena’s invasion, good though Boyle is, is a little overlooked; and J’s love interest, for the second film running, is undercooked. As a result, when the climax comes, it’s really nothing to get very excited about.

Moreover, the film’s individual components are often more miss than hit. For example, some of the CGI (while great for the time, no doubt) now looks fake, over-complicated for its own sake, and poorly integrated with what’s real. Scrad and his ancillary second head are both equally annoying, while I was also non-plussed by Serleena’s other crony, John Alexander’s strange, modular Jarra. And while there are some nice jokes, including a bit of sharp race-related riffing, there are at least as many that don’t hit the mark: Michael Jackson’s naff cameo, the ‘ballchinians’, the Playstation controller that steers the flying vehicle, which not only recycles the first film’s ‘falling about in the car’ gag but also borrows another one from Airplane!. That said, a couple of the novelties did work well: I liked Peter Graves’ introductory (and very cheap) re-enactment of the Zarthons visit to Earth, and the creatures who inhabit a Grand Central Terminal locker and worship K are awfully cute.

Men in Black II is by no means a horrendous failure, but neither is it as much fun as the original Men In Black, and watching it gives me even less hope that the (as yet unseen) third instalment will contain a load of fresh ideas. It’s entirely passable – and if that sounds like I’m damning it with faint praise, good, because that’s exactly what I meant to do.


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