- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 3, 2002

"Men in Black" got off to a literal running start five summers ago when Will Smith chased a fleet, shape-shifting alien to the top of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. The relative sluggishness of the sequel, "Men in Black II," which opens today, may be gauged by a teaser prologue that showcases Peter Graves as the host of a UFO TV series.
The new movie's choice of an initial humorous downbeat seems flat. The film fails to unfold in a fresh, confident and satisfying manner. At 88 minutes, the sequel is a real shortie 10 minutes shorter than the original, which seemed to enjoy an unerring pace and never wore out its breezy impudence and ingenuity.
Serendipity may have smiled on the original with exceptional favor. The novelty of the science-fiction milieu was an obvious asset. It seemed to expand the famous cantina sequence of "Star Wars" to an entire metropolitan area that teemed with alien life-forms that accentuated the eccentric and ferocious. The deadpan comic partnership of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones also paid off. They supplied an enjoyable credibility to contrasting agents in an apocryphal Secret Service, called Men in Black, entrusted with monitoring and policing an alien population whose magnitude was concealed to a large extent from humans.
Recalling the impact of Vincent D'Onofrio as the principal monster-at-large in "Men in Black" does tend to invite unflattering comparisons for Lara Flynn Boyle as his overblown, disillusioning counterpart in "Men in Black II." She plays a hydra-headed tyrant called Serleena. This extraterrestrial scourge conceals itself as an aging bondage vamp with conspicuous prosthetic breasts, then infiltrates Men in Black headquarters as a preamble to global blackmail.
Serleena has a two-headed flunky called Scrad, played by Johnny Knoxville, who is far from a first-class second banana.
A new set of writers, Robert Gordon and Barry Fanaro, may not have been as cleverly inspired as the original set, Ed Solomon and the uncredited David Koepp. Mr. Gordon, who wrote "Galaxy Quest," a better sustained science-fiction farce, seems to have collaborated mostly with the DreamWorks producing team of Walter Parkes and Laurie McDonald. Mr. Fanaro seems to have been the choice of director Barry Sonnenfeld, who had just worked with him on "Big Trouble."
All the principals arrived in a rush from previous commitments, without a completed screenplay in hand Mr. Sonnenfeld from the ill-timed "Big Trouble," Mr. Smith from his biographical epic "Ali" and Mr. Jones from a chase thriller called "The Hunted." Despite the five-year gap between original and sequel, "Men in Black II" may have been a victim of skimpy preparation.
Mr. Smith appears to be going through motions that don't appeal to him in the slightest until Mr. Jones returns as his sidekick in the second reel. The plot has to keep the latter's Agent Kay on ice for reasons that could be effective: He retired from the service at the end of the first movie, and a condition of such retirement is memory effacement by the futuristic process called deneuralization. This process is resorted to with more frequency than it probably should be during the sequel.
Anyway, Kay is rediscovered vegetating as a postal clerk in New England. Supposedly, his memory has buried information that is vital to combating Serleena. So Mr. Smith's Agent Jay must supervise the re-enlistment and tag along while Kay slowly regains his bearings. The process is helped, at least in theory, by the fact that Kay has left a trail of reactivating, memory-jogging clues around the city, just in case a terminal emergency should arise.
The problem with this approach is that it places a heavy burden of proof on playing catch-up. The filmmakers haven't been able to kill that time with comic brilliance. Mr. Jones is somewhat protected from the movie's struggles to find traction because he makes a late arrival. In a way, the entire premise awaits him, begging him to steal the movie without half trying.
An inordinate burden falls on Mr. Smith, who seems to be suffering from MIB burnout. The most consistent comedy material in the film seems to be reserved for Tim Blaney as the voice of Frank the Pug, a wisecracking mascot of the agency.
The second bad omen after the Peter Graves prologue is the total waste of Patrick Warburton in a negligible role as Jay's new sidekick. By the time "Men In Black II" gets around to borrowing the "half-floor" gag from "Being John Malkovich" while visiting the bachelor pad of a trio of lizard aliens who cooperate with the heroes the second-hand emphasis has grown a little embarrassing. Then a dud car chase around Times Square calls attention to short-winded resemblances to "Spider-Man."
A sight gag that looks pretty specific to the "Men in Black" cosmos eventually haunts the movie as a whole: A pizzeria manager gets sliced to death by the ruthless Serleena. His unsightly remains aren't quite as distressing as those of the movie, which starts to suggest a stale and unfinished pizza.

*
TITLE: "Men in Black II"
RATING: PG-13 (Systematic depictions of extraterrestrial monsters, occasional comic vulgarity, graphic violence in a facetious, science-fiction context)
CREDITS: Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. Screenplay by Robert Gordon and Barry Fanaro. Cinematography by Greg Gardiner. Alien make-up effects by Rick Baker.
RUNNING TIME: 88 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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