Barry Sonnenfeld’s 1997 sci-fi comedy Men in Black was a witty parody of
Yes, Mr. Jones and Mr. Smith are Back in Black, but their odd-couple chemistry has succumbed to tired bickering, while the satiric wit and creative energy of the original film have given way to standard-issue sci‑fi action and special-effects spectacle. If MIB was like a smarter, leaner Independence Day, MIB II is more of the same, only not smarter or leaner.
Beyond more action and bigger effects, the sequel brings nothing new to the table. You’ll wait in vain for satirical "revelations" about the presence of aliens among us to match the wit of the jokes in the original about cab drivers or the World’s Fair. Instead, we get limp gags like the one about the Post Office being staffed by aliens. (Why? Is it a joke about postal efficiency? The "going postal" stereotype? The fact that they make rounds? What?)
Here’s a slightly better one: A group of extraterrestrials arriving in New York is instructed, "Go out only at night. If you must go out in the day, only in the East Village." That’s about as funny as the alien/real-world humor gets in MIB II (or "MIIB," as it’s also abbreviated).
The same goes for the alien-celebrity jokes, which are lame and obvious compared with the original film. When MIB suggested that Newt Gingrich and Dennis Rodman were aliens (and not necessarily especially well-disguised ones), it was funny. When the sequel goes back to the same well for Oprah and Martha Stewart it’s just tired. A self-parodying cameo by Michael Jackson does generate slightly more impact, but mostly for stunt casting; as a target of satire, he’s long since irrelevant (in the words of one critic, "Note to Sony: We already knew Michael Jackson was an alien").
In the villain role, where the original film had
In the role of female outsider-civilian who stumbles onto the big secret, the original film’s suspicious morgue worker (Linda Fiorentino) has been replaced by a waitress named Rita (Rosario Dawson) who’s a witness to an alien murder. Fiorentino’s character, who by the end of the first film had become the first WIB, is here dismissed with a couple of lines of dialogue: She retired from the MIB and went back to the morgue, her memories of service (as per MIB policy) erased by partner Jay (Will Smith) with a flash of his neuralyzer (a cigar-sized gizmo with a mind-altering strobe effect).
The retirement of Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) at the end of the previous film isn’t quite as easily undone, though the sequel does make short work of his long-deferred marriage, by revealing that his wife left him. This is one of those unwelcome revisionistic sequel fixes (like the revelation at the beginning of Alien3 that, instead of the three survivors arriving safely back at earth, Hicks and Newt died in cryosleep while Ripley got stranded on a hellish prison planet) that makes fans of the earlier film want to entirely disregard the sequel’s very existence. I liked the fact that MIB ended with Kay finally getting to go back to the woman he loved, and I resent the filmmakers breaking up their marriage for the sake of this inferior sequel.
Bit players from the first film reappear with
Other new aliens and creatures are introduced, to little effect. There’s a giant, subterranean slug-like creature that’s surely related to the vicious earthworms in Tremors, and a tall, scuzzy-looking alien in a big cloak who turns into five much smaller scuzzy-looking aliens in little flying saucers and proceeds to attack Jay. The special-effects look time-consuming, but that’s about the only impression these scenes make.
Obviously, a good bit of the problem is the screenplay, credited to Robert Gordon (also responsible for the far superior sci‑fi comedy Galaxy Quest) and Barry Fanaro (Kingpin). Neither writer worked on the original film, which I find on IMDb.com was penned by Ed Solomon, whose other credits include Charlie’s Angels and Super Mario Brothers. How is it that that guy did Men in Black so much better than the screenwriters of Galaxy Quest and Kingpin? Perhaps uncredited writers on one or both films have something to do with it.
Like the filmmakers, the Men in Black themselves seem to have lost their edge. No longer elite shadow agents professionally curtailing human exposure to extraterrestrial life, they’ve become bumbling yahoos brawling in the streets, flashing their memory-wiping neuralyzers around with alarming frequency (Jay in particular seems to "retire" his partners a lot).
In fact, the only time Jay hesitates to neuralyze someone is when he’s questioning the waitress Rita about the alien murder she witnessed. MIB policy requires witnesses to be neuralyzed — but Jay’s attracted to Rita, and, after pulling out the neuralyzer and explaining its function, he abruptly changes his mind: "I’ll flash you some other time." (The repeated "flashing" double-entendre in this exchange, coupled with Jay’s attraction to Rita and reluctance to use his "flashy-stick" on her, suggests interpretive possibilities I have no wish to explore.)
What is up with those riders on the tandem bike all lit up like the Disneyworld Main Street Electrical Parade? There was a mysterious tandem bike in the first MIB too, now that I think about it. Does it have some cryptic meaning in Barry Sonnenfeld’s mind? Why does he think the rest of us care?
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about this sequel is the way Jay and Kay’s chemistry has evaporated. The first film gave them a relationship based on familiar Fish-Out-of-Water and Odd-Couple Partners principles, but the low-key performances and witty dialogue made their exchanges fresh and entertaining.
Instead, Kay and Jay are reduced to bickering exchanges, such as a debate over which of them drives the new black sportscar. Kay protests that he always drove, but Jay answers, "You always drove the old busted-up car. I drive the new hotness." Emphatically, pointing first to Kay and then to himself, Jay repeats: "Old and busted-up… new hotness."
Of course, as these two movies illustrate, "old" isn’t always "busted-up," and "new" isn’t always "hotness."
It’s all acceptably diverting, and not actively unpleasant like the 2002 sequel. There are no grand twists or revelations comparable to the truth about the “galaxy” in the original. What the film could most use, I think, is a wide-eyed uninitiate like Linda Fiorentino in the original or Rosario Dawson in the sequel — but one from 1969, which would offer a fresh twist on the outsider’s experience of the MIB’s nutty world.
Based on the whimsical comic book series of the same name, Men in Black looks superficially like another Independence Day-style big-budget summer special-effects extravaganza with a catchy three-letter acronym. Yet MIB is smarter, leaner, funnier, and more human than most entries in the genre, relying less on spectacle than on the chemistry of the two leads and the wit of the script for its appeal.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.