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"MEN IN BLACK II"
(2002) (Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Sci-fi: A secret government agent retrieves his former partner to help stop a hostile alien creature who's intent on retrieving a powerful energy source.
PLOT:
It's been several years since Agent K (TOMMY LEE JONES) and Agent J (WILL SMITH) last worked together in saving the world from extraterrestrial aliens. Working for the top secret Men In Black government operation that's run by Zed (RIP TORN) and is dedicated to policing and monitoring all alien activity on Earth, K decided he'd had enough of the job and wanted J to "neuralize" him, thus erasing all memories of his job and encounters with various aliens.

Since then, J has become more jaded with work, especially when partnered with incompetent agents like T (PATRICK WARBURTON), or annoying ones such as Frank (voice of TIM BLANEY) who's disguised as a vocal pug.

Upon investigating an apparent alien on alien killing observed by human witness Laura Vasquez (ROSARIO DAWSON), J discovers that an evil Kylothian alien by the name of Serleena (LARA FLYNN BOYLE) has returned to Earth in search of the light of Zartha, an energy source that's so powerful that the Zarthians entrusted the Men in Black during the 1970s to keep her from getting her vine-like tentacles on it.

With the aid of her dimwitted, two-headed alien accomplice Charlie (JOHNNY KNOXVILLE), Serleena - now disguised as a lingerie model - is trying to track down the Light. Accordingly, Zed sends J to find and bring K - now Truro, Massachusetts postmaster Kevin Brown - back into the fold, as he's the only one who knows the Light's whereabouts.

Paying a visit to local alien Jeebs (TONY SHALHOUB), J de-neuralizes K and the two then set out to save Earth by finding and stopping Serleena before she acquires the Light.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
In America, people's identities are usually most associated with and defined by their job. It's the thing most of us spend the majority of our entire adult lives doing, how we make a living, and what we talk about. Not surprisingly, the American dream is to excel at your job, retire when you've had enough of it, and hopefully never think about it again once you've left.

That's certainly held true for Kevin Brown who was the best as what he did, quit when he'd had enough and figured he's never have to worry about remembering any of it. As luck would have it, however, work has eventually come calling again, as he's the only one with knowledge of how to solve a particular problem back at the office.

This time around, though, the subject at hand not only can't remember how to do that, but he's also forgotten everything about his job, can't ever recall doing it, and isn't aware that he's supposed to be retired rather than currently working for the U.S. Postal Service.

That's part of the jumping off premise of "Men in Black II," the long-awaited but inevitable sequel to the hugely successful and extremely entertaining 1997 sci-fi flick that gave new meaning to the term "illegal alien" and made government work seem both hip and fashionable.

Since the original film ended with Kevin, a.k.a. Agent K - one half of the top-secret Men in Black government team - "neuralized" to the point of having all knowledge and memory of his previous job wiped clean, the filmmakers, including returning director Barry Sonnenfeld ("Big Trouble," "Wild Wild West") and new screenwriters Robert Gordon ("Galaxy Quest," "Addicted to Love") and Barry Fanaro ("The Crew," "Kingpin"), had to come up with a novel way of returning to the story.

With the roles of the main characters being reversed, there is some fun to be had, especially in seeing Tommy Lee Jones - who plays Kevin/K - embodying a by the books New England postmaster (the fabulous Linda Fiorentino - who ended the last film being Will Smith's new partner - unfortunately is nowhere to be found and her absence is described in just one throw-away line). As a result, Smith's character is then teamed with various incompatible partners - including a completely wasted Patrick Warburton ("Big Trouble," "Joe Somebody").

For anyone looking for something as spontaneous, unique and/or a barrel of imaginative fun as the first film, however, the filmmakers unfortunately have simply retreaded most every element from the original, notwithstanding the above twist, resulting in an overly familiar, repetitive and only moderately entertaining popcorn diversion.

That said, those desirous of more of the same of what made the first film work - at least in terms of plot elements and devices - should be happy, at least to some degree. We get the top-secret government agent recruiting a non-believer to join him in the fold and stop an alien who's taken on human form in its quest to obtain something quite valuable and important that's contained in a very small package.

The odd couple banter then resumes, as do various smart aleck quips, and witnesses are neuralized and then given funny subliminal suggestions about changing their lives. Celebrities are revealed as agents or aliens, and various characters, human and alien, return from the first film, with all sorts of fun and imaginative special effects making the picture a visual feast.

While such repetition is the norm in most sequels, that's obviously not necessarily a good thing, particularly when the repeated material, plot elements or type of humor feel as if they were designed by filmmakers who were simply going through the motions. Although there are some fun and funny moments, they're not as plentiful or successful as the first time around, likely resulting in something of a "been there, seen that" response from viewers. Simply put, the effort doesn't feel as fresh or innovative as its predecessor.

Among the things that made the first film so much fun was the chemistry between the main characters and the verbal and physical interplay between them. While the plot puts a twisty spin on that for the first part of the film, it pretty much reverts back to the original straight man/comedy foil design in the second. It's fun having Tommy Lee Jones ("Space Cowboys," "Rules of Engagement") and Will Smith ("Ali," "The Legend of Baggar Vance") paired together once again, but like the rest of the film, their interplay lacks the same sort of spark that made the original so good.

The place where the sequel fails in comparison to the first film is in its supporting characters. While Rip Torn ("Freddy Got Fingered," "Wonder Boys") and Tony Shalhoub ("Life or Something Like It," "Impostor") reprise their roles, Lara Flynn Boyle ("Happiness," TV's "The Practice") is no match for Vincent D'Onofrio from the first as the alien with a diabolical quest.

What made "Edgar" so much fun was that he was an alien in a man's decomposing body that didn't work all of the time, had a soft spot for bugs, and was something of a dimwit. Here, Boyle isn't allowed to do much with her cleavage-enhanced alien who's fashioned after a Victoria's Secret model. Not only does the actress play the character without humor, but the filmmakers also drop the ball on getting mileage out of that overall lingerie potential beyond an initial pre-consumption sight gag.

Johnny Knoxville ("Big Trouble," "Coyote Ugly") appears as a two-headed alien, but beyond a brief CPR on himself scene, isn't given much with which to work, which is too bad considering the setup. Meanwhile, Rosario Dawson ("Sidewalks of New York," "Josie and the Pussycats") shows up as the female "third wheel," but can't do much with the character that definitely pales in comparison to what Fiorentino did with hers in the first film. The chemistry between Dawson and Smith's characters just doesn't work, with it feeling as if some of their interplay ended up on the cutting room floor.

In fact, the film is incredibly short for a major motion picture, clocking in at only a bit more than 80 minutes, credits included. While I won't complain about films being short rather than long - after all, the recent computer-generated kids films like "Shrek" and "Toy Story" inject a lot of entertaining story into a scant amount of time -- it seems odd in this case (the original film was around 98 minutes).

It's hard to say whether they purposefully kept it short (for artistic or commercial reasons - since the latter allows for more theatrical showings per day and thus a higher potential box office take and/or record), or simply didn't have the material or couldn't get it to work in a longer form.

Whatever the case, the film comes off as moderately entertaining, but that's about it. While the first put a fun, fresh and imaginative spin on and playing with the old 50's style, sci-fi plot of alien invaders and government men working the case, this one - much like how "Ghostbusters II" compared to its predecessor - feels like reheated leftovers that are palatable, but don't come off as tasty as the first time around. While not horrible, "Men in Black II" simply isn't as much fresh, entertaining or imaginative fun as the original. It rates as a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed July 1, 2002 / Posted July 3, 2002


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