REVIEW: Men in Black II [2002]

Score: 3/10 | ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 88 minutes | Release Date: July 2nd, 2002 (USA)
Studio: Columbia Pictures / Sony Pictures Releasing
Director(s): Barry Sonnenfeld
Writer(s): Robert Gordon and Barry Fanaro / Robert Gordon (story) / Lowell Cunningham (Malibu comic)

“I see you neuralyzed another partner”

There’s nothing like a lost memory trope to allow lazy screenwriters the opportunity to explain their film within the construct of its plot. Despite an inventive, tongue-in-cheek reenactment program hosted by Peter Graves about mysterious conspiracy stories ushering us back into the Men in Black universe, Robert Gordon and Barry Fanaro‘s subversion of their expository prologue is wasted. No one enjoys disembodied voices and scrolling text to describe backstory in a Kindergarten teacher’s tone of superiority, so why not poke some fun at the cliché’s expense? Sadly, however, they ruin it by making us watch the program again later on with character commentary fleshing out the details. And to top it all off, one sequence halfway through actually has Agent Jay (Will Smith) summarizing a not so difficult plan Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) just finished telling us. Talk about zero confidence in your own work.

At 88 minutes, Men in Black II doesn’t have a Ph.D. level plot with pithy insights. No, completely turning from the darkly comic atmosphere of the original, this sequel is a bona fide lowest common denominator romp with pratfalls, slapstick, overly broad comedy, and a litany of stern reaction shots begging you to laugh from discomfort rather than actual humor. When Smith must squirm around for over a minute on rubber tubing with only the screeching of plastic heard while the camera remains motionless on his slow roll to the floor, you have to wonder what he saw in the script to want to sign on. A passing of the baton—Jones is relegated to brief straight man status doing little but driving the story with hamfisted secrets he himself doesn’t know—the result is little more than a blatant cash grab for a star who one year previously was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar.

Director Barry Sonnenfeld tries his best to make it a worthy follow-up, but the charm of its predecessor is all but gone as effective prosthetic work is replaced with horrible computer graphics. Appearing as though the studio spent their entire budget on the villainous Serleena’s (Lara Flynn Boyle) snake-like form, everything else lacks authenticity. Cartoonish throughout, the gritty realism that helped bridge comedy and drama in the original is forgotten in lieu of poor characterizations that somehow let the casting of Johnny Knoxville as a two headed alien with the IQ of a brick seem appropriate. There are no stakes since we assume the moronic company Serleena keeps will eventually let her down and with most of the duration focused on bringing Kay up to speed after five years living like a civilian, it’s easy to forget the world risks annihilation in mere hours.

Acknowledging Men in Black succeeded because of Smith’s and Jones’ rapport, it’s unsurprising that Linda Fiorentino‘s role is written out to allow for their reunion. Jay is now Zed’s (Rip Torn) go-to guy for anything dangerous and apocalyptic, but the strain of such responsibility and the inability to find a partner worthy of replacing Kay has left him completely alone. He neuralyzes the incompetents at his side when they fail to pan out—Patrick Warburton is a brilliant mess of emotions towards this end—and finds himself with only Frank the pug willing to suit up since the other agents fear an ‘early retirement’. Serleena’s return to Earth is therefore the best thing that could happen as it makes Kay the crucial piece to solving the puzzle of the elusive Light of Zartha and calls for his instant reinstatement as the most feared agent in dark shades.

Throw in tertiary characters like Jack Kehler‘s Ben and Rosario Dawson‘s Laura to be squished into whatever molds the filmmakers desire while they constantly change the underlying mystery by revealing new secrets and you have a train wreck of ill-used, manipulated pawns. Everyone involved but Smith comes and goes as necessary, forever in the screenwriters’ back pockets. Giant subway worms, bounty hunter aliens, and a creepy monster straight out of The Rocky Horror Picture Show all vanish as quickly as they arrive, becoming fodder for gags rather than story progression. And the saddest part of all is that besides a race joke about Jay’s car’s faux driver, none of the humor works beyond the level of a Scary Movie, cutely idiotic guffaw. Only one bit about the scale—size—of evil elicited a true grin, but I had hoped it was a sign of better things to come.

Not even the extraterrestrials increase the enjoyment factor as old friends are watered-down—Tony Shalhoub‘s Jeebs is now an over-the-top blinged-out pimp and the golden worms like playing sexual Twister in their swinger pad—and new lack any lasting impression. It’s a shame too because the creatures are played by recognizable names (Doug Jones, Kevin Grevioux, Martin Klebba) yet only Biz Markie can shine inside a Postal employee revelation that may be the only creative idea Gordon and Fanaro conjured up. After their opening spaceship crash and final big existential reveal mirrored the original so closely, I was surprised to learn Ed Solomon didn’t receive a writing credit. The whole ends up an unfortunate mess of squandered potential delivering nothing more than cheap laughs and annoying characters. I only hope the troubled Men in Black III doesn’t further taint the series’ memory and somehow lets us forget this entry even existed.

[1] Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith in Columbia’s Men in Black II – 2002
[2] Johnny Knoxville and Lara Flynn Boyle in Columbia’s Men in Black II – 2002
[3] Tony Shalhoub in Columbia’s Men in Black II – 2002

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