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Monday 8 July 2002

Men In Black II

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld
Starring Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Lara Flynn Boyle, Rosario Dawson

Reviewed by John Shirley

Sometimes I feel a bit ashamed, going to see a sequel to a good film. I feel I’m in complicity with the diminution of the original film; I’m encouraging inferior productions. Because, as everyone knows, a sequel is usually blurrier, duller, communicating less than its original, like a photocopy of a photo. The exceptions — The Godfather: Part II, Terminator 2, Addams Family Values, maybe others — are few.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter with something as loopy and over the top as Men in Black. Still, a really good comedy should be as well-crafted as a good drama. And for me, this wasn’t a particularly good comedy. It’s a blurry photocopy.

When it works it’s because Barry Sonnenfeld, who did the delightful Addams Family movies, is a good director, and Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are talented guys with some chemistry together. And because, as in Star Wars: Episode II, there’s striking behind-the-scenes talent, an army of art-design imaginations devising dozens of great-looking, funny aliens and alien situations.

The first Men in Black movie was a marvelous work, in which the film makers were still honestly excited by the story’s comedic conceit. It was based on a UFO legend (part of which legend derives from the roguish journalistic shenanigans of Jim Moseley, purveyor of Saucer Smear magazine), and on the Malibu comic book, and maybe on characters modeled after the TV show I Spy.

In the first Men in Black a young black man is recruited to fight (and regulate) aliens by an old veteran of an agency that dates back to the bad old days of the supposed Roswell crash. An extraterrestrial McGuffin must be protected or the whole Earth goes kaboom; a secret society of alien immigrants is revealed (one of the most enjoyable aspects of the film); and at the end Tommy Lee Jones retires, asking to have his memory wiped so he can live the life of a normal man. The film was fresh and inventive, the story neatly springy, and as soon as it was over I wondered how they’d do the sequel. I figured, instantly, that some threat to Earth would come along and only the Tommy Lee Jones character would remember how to deal with it, so they’d have to bring him out of retirement and revive his memory... And that, predictably, is exactly what happens in MIBII.

Predictability is pretty much the mode for the whole film. The jokes are nicely delivered, but largely unsurprising; they have a TV-sitcom flavor, and many of them fall flat. The plot, about a girl who’s got a bracelet that holds the key to saving an alien civilization from Lara Flynn Boyle’s tentacular Serleena — she’s the Cruella De Vil of evil ETs — is mostly quite predictable too, though they throw out some red herrings. There are clever bits, as when Tommy Lee Jones must be retrieved from his job at the US post office and reintroduced to the MIB HQ, but we saw a lot of that already in lots and lots of trailers. There’s a funny Peter Graves sketch about a Beyond Belief sort of show, with the hilariously lame re-creations of UFOlogical myth setting up the conflict between the evil ET villainess and the friendly aliens. But neither that scene nor any other hint, that I caught, explains why the villainess is after the The Light of the friendly aliens.

This shrugging omission is of a piece with the cartoony tone of the film; it’s gone from pleasantly comic-booky to ludicrously cartoony, with Will Smith flying headfirst through subway-train windows and emerging unscathed, and an increased reliance on muppet-like Alfesque cute-but-rude aliens.

More punishing to our engagement with the story is the unconvincing, undernourished "romance" between Will Smith and a witness played by the stunningly gorgeous Rosario Dawson — a pleasure to look at, this young actress, but barely adequate in this role. Somehow we don’t care when Will has to let the girl go, for the sake of the Earth, since the romance never seemed real to begin with. Tommy Lee Jones, slowly coming back to his realization of his destiny, is a bit more convincing; we almost feel his longing to re-connect with the stars.

Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones play out their amusing friction in one or two brief scenes, but there isn’t much of it, and it's not as lively as in the first film.

I recall this movie in a fragmentary way, because it doesn’t hang together as a whole. There’s a confusing attempt at the end of MIBII to blow your mind the way they did at the end of the first MIB, where the microcosm and the macrocosm switched places; Michael Jackson shows he’s a good sport, appearing in an amusing alien cameo; there’s a joke about the East Village that those of us who used to live there appreciate. There’s a funny talking dog — kind of humdrum, almost the same dog from a recent Adam Sandler film, but an enjoyable presence. There’s some satire about cult-film video store conspiracy theorists — also very familiar, and it seems wooden. There’s a pretty exciting super-car flight scene toward the end.

Right: They wouldn’t want to neglect the super-car imagery, or the cute-but-rude aliens, or the leering talking dog, or the entertaining friction between Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. They made sure they had all the components — but they are connected formulaically. The film is like a new generation of some familiar software: same old stuff with some new gimmicks. Ultimately this is just Men in Black 2.0.

John Shirley is the author of numerous books, including recently-released Demons from Ballantine/Del Rey, the Bram Stoker award-winning Black Butterflies (Leisure Books), and Darkness Divided from Stealth Books. His newest novel is And the Angel with Television Eyes from Nightshade Books. He is also a writer for screen and television. The authorized website is

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