It’s taken five years for a sequel to Barry Sonnenfeld’s 1997 smash to make it to the screen, at a reputed cost of $97 million. If you ignore the final crawls–which drone on interminably because of all the SFX artists involved–the running-time of “Men in Black II” is only about 82 minutes. That roughly comes out to 16.4 minutes per year, and $1.2 million per minute.
Is the picture worth all that time and money? It may depend on whether you still find the original deliciously cool. This is one of those flicks that follows the oldest of dicta about sequels–if the first one worked, just make it over again. In the present case, the problem with that approach is that the first film has aged rather badly; it retains a certain nostalgic charm, but now seems decidedly behind the curve rather than ahead of it. The filmmakers strive mightily to recapture the jokey, comic-book tone of the 1997 “Men in Black,” and visually the impressive work of half a decade ago is equaled, if not bettered; but the effect is much diminished when it all seems more than a little redundant. Sadly, “Men in Black II” feels, for the most part, fairly flat and joyless, more dutiful recreation than inspired rethinking. The sense of deja vu is accentuated by the fact that the story concocted by Robert Gordon and Barry Fanaro is virtually identical, except for a major role reversal, to that which Ed Solomon fashioned the first time around: in this case it’s veteran Kay (Tommy Lee Jones), whose memory of his past work has been wiped clean, who must be reintroduced to the corps of alien-hunters by his erstwhile protégé Jay (Will Smith), whom he taught the ropes in the last outing. Many gags involving incredulity about the presence of extraterrestrials on earth and the government’s mechanisms for controlling them are pretty much repeated from the first flick, except now it’s the hangdog-faced Jones who gets to do the reaction shots (very low-key in his case) while Smith handles what should be the deadpan shtick (to which, being naturally ebullient, he nevertheless adds a good deal of mugging). The duo is also on the trail of a shapeshifter again, though this time it’s curvaceous Lara Flynn Boyle rather than burly Vincent D’Onofrio: she plays the arch-villain Serleena, a sort of hydra-like mass of snakes that takes on the form of a Victoria’s Secret model to track down a “light” which Kay had been instrumental in hiding away from her twenty-five years earlier. Most of the plot is just an extended chase centered on the heroic duo’s efforts to get to the light before Serleena, who’s taken over MIB headquarters; their success will save not only earth from destruction, but also the faraway planet the villainess is trying to dominate. The big finale–following a flying-car chase which come across like a homage to the attack on the Death Star from “Star Wars”–seems especially thin. (Word is that there was originally a much more flamboyant finish, but it involved the World Trade Center and so had to be replaced.)
Despite all the similarities, there are a couple of innovations in the movie. One is the introduction of a potential romantic interest for Smith in the person of waitress Laura Vasquez (Rosario Dawson), but surprisingly little is made of it, and Laura’s role in the denouement comes out of left field. Another difference between this picture and its predecessor is a much larger role in it for Frank, the loquacious bulldog who appeared only briefly in the original, but who here briefly becomes Jay’s partner. The expansion of the mutt’s screen time may be a prelude to further installments in which Kay and Jay disappear entirely, or are reduced to the level of sidekicks to this rowdier, more rambunctious cousin of “Scooby Doo.” (Given the star power of Jones and especially Smith–as well as their substantial salaries–the former seems more likely.) Frank is but the most persistent of the effects that make up a good deal of the running-time: as in the original, odd creatures pop up all over the place, some from the first flick (like the lascivious, mischievous worms), and they’re a pretty imaginative bunch all in all. In this company the humans threaten to get lost, but the hammy Smith and the dour Jones are both accomplished scene-stealers themselves and manage to hold their own against the critters; once again, Jones gets more laughs by seeming not to be searching for them (a sequence in which, still retired, he runs a Massachusetts post office in the style of a drill sergeant is great fun), but the two continue to work off one another well. Less successful are old pro Rip Torn as their gruff boss and Tony Shalhoub as the alien shopowner Jeebs; neither is given material worthy of their talents, except for the final scene in which Torn gets to chew the scenery in a fashion that recalls Artie, his triumphant “Larry Sanders” producer. Nor does Boyle bring as much fizz to the party as the bearlike D’Onofrio did. She’s effective eye candy, but she gives a one-note performance, as does Johnny Knoxville as her two-headed henchman; and Patrick Warburton overdoes his customary dumb lug shtick as an MIB agent who proves not up to the ultra-hip job. Peter Graves looks positively cadaverous as the host of a chintzy conspiracy-themed TV show that describes a “Roswell”-like incident central to the plot in “Plan Nine from Outer Space” style, and cameos featuring Michael Jackson and Martha Stewart doubtlessly seemed a lot funnier on paper than they turned out. (Given her current media troubles, Stewart’s appearance in particular feels a bit creepy.)
A joke is never as funny the second time around, and with a single exception (an inspired gag involving the contents of a locker in Grand Central Station) “Men in Black II” lacks the pleasure of discovery that was a chief enjoyment of the first picture. It’s better than “Evolution,” last year’s appalling attempt to mimic the recipe, or the awful “Wild Wild West,” which also teamed Smith and Sonnenfeld, but that’s faint praise indeed. Despite the big budget and Sonnefeld’s helpful inclination to hurry things along, the picture comes across as second-hand goods; even at that mere eighty-two minutes it manages to overstay its welcome.