Men in Black II
In Men in Black II — directed, like the first one, by the once-promising Barry Sonnenfeld — the hard-bitten Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) and the eager rookie Agent J (Will Smith) have switched places. K, having been “neuralyzed” at the end of the first film to erase his memories of the MIB program, is brought back into the fray by J, who now has five years of experience under his belt. Jones’ bafflement — he’s been working in a Cape Cod post office — plays nicely against Smith’s quiet eye-rolls of exasperation. When K gets deneuralyzed, though, the dynamic goes back to that of the 1997 original. So does everything else.
Apart from one unaccountably daffy scene involving a village of tiny aliens who have been living in K’s abandoned locker and worshipping his wristwatch, MIIB (as the ads have it) is about the most uninspired rehash of a popular hit I’ve ever seen. On the principle that the only thing the original lacked was a babelicious villain, Sonnenfeld and writers Robert Gordon and Barry Fanaro order up a vicious alien, Serleena, who wants to find some bracelet and conquer the world; and in the person of Lara Flynn Boyle, she looks so gaunt that when the movie stoops to a barfing joke (Serleena devours a male attacker, then notices her sudden tummy bulge and vomits him back up) it comes off like an anorexia joke in the worst taste.
It’s undeniably fun to see Tommy Lee Jones as an amiable, harmless postal worker named Kevin Brown pre-deneuralyzation. As usual, he sneaks dry volumes of wit into his crisp monotone. He’s doing this in the same what-the-hell, pass-the-paycheck mood in which he did Batman Forever. Will Smith, on the other hand, seems to be coming down with Eddie Murphy disease. He may feel he’s beyond the honking little aliens now, and maybe he is — in the five years since MIB, he’s been nominated for an Oscar. But oddly, this one-time comedian doesn’t give himself to the goofiness the way Jones — who spent most of his career being as serious as cancer — can. If I’m not mistaken, there’s a touch of sullenness in Smith’s work here: “Y’all didn’t come out for Ali — you only like me in shit like this.”
The sullenness could extend to Smith’s director. Has Barry Sonnenfeld lost his mind? Certainly he no longer has any grasp of humor or even rudimentary entertainment. There’s one decent moment of simple slapstick when Smith fumbles his way down a pile of inflatable tubes — the comically static staging recalls his bit in the original with the table scraping loudly across the floor. But for the most part Sonnenfeld just points his camera at non-existent CGI beasts to be added later. Bringing back Tony Shalhoub as a shady alien dealer doesn’t help; neither does recruiting Johnny Knoxville as a never-funny two-headed alien in cahoots with Serleena. More than once, the neuralyzed K is said to be “in neutral”; so is Sonnenfeld. Why is he doing these movies? Wild Wild West, Big Trouble, now this — he doesn’t bring anything to them except exhaustion and desperation.
And perhaps greed. Everyone involved in MIIB knows it’s a surefire July 4 hit; it will own its weekend and make everyone bankable again. It may seem naïve to point that out; but this sequel, more than any other in recent memory (you’d probably have to go back to Beverly Hills Cop III for an equally soulless, cynical and laughless “comedy” sequel), seems only in it for the money. (Hell, even the embarrassing Attack of the Clones at least emerged from George Lucas’ highly specific vision, inane as that vision often is.) We get the same gross-outs, the same bellowing monsters, the same chattering little worms, the same heads exploding in sticky guck. MIIB seems to want to neuralyze the audience: it wants the original movie’s fans to remember that film enough to remember that they liked it and want more, but it wants them to forget it enough so that they don’t realize they’re not getting more. They’re not even getting the-same-only-different; they’re getting the-same-only-more-same.