Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 16, 2003)
Since 1997’s Men In Black earned $250 million, which would have made it the biggest hit of the year if not for a little something called Titanic. However, while the latter didn’t exactly lend itself to sequel possibilities, MIB provided a wealth of franchise opportunities and seemed like a lock for more flicks.
So why’d it take them five years to finally produce Men In Black II? Money, money, money! With a budget of $90 million, the first flick didn’t exactly come cheap, but given its success, the price tags of all involved escalated. MIIB shot up to a budget of $140 million, and I’d guess that costs for its leads and director probably accounted for a substantial percentage of that sum.
But it’s all for the good of the film, right? After all, sequels that omit significant participants from the original usually stink, so it’s great to see all of the main folks from the first one return, right? This means MIIB will be just as much fun as that movie, right?
Uh, no. While not a horrendous movie, Men In Black II almost totally loses the spark seen in the original flick. It plods along and never feels like anything more than a tepid imitation of the first picture.
At the start of MIIB, we see a quick prologue that purports to come from a TV show that exposes secrets such as the existence of aliens and the men in black. This program sets up something called the Light of Zartha. Back in the Seventies, a nasty ET named Serleena wanted it for evil ends, so the MIB made sure she didn’t get it when they transported it off the Earth into realms unknown.
Flash-forward to 2002, and Serleena returns to Earth. She takes the first image she sees – a Victoria’s Secret ad – and molds herself to look like that model (Lara Flynn Boyle) for her time on the planet. She then begins her evil quest to find the Light of Zartha.
In the meantime, we see Agent “J” (Will Smith). After five years on the force, he’s become their top man, and something of a workaholic to boot. He goes through partners quickly, and we watch as he neuralyzes his latest one after a botched job. After Serleena kills an alien she confronts for information, “J” gets the assignment to follow up with a witness named Laura Vasquez (Rosario Dawson). Rather than give “J” a regular partner, Zed (Rip Torn) has Frank the Pug (voiced by Tim Blaney) accompany him. They don’t get a lot of info, but “J” starts to fall for Laura.
Back at the headquarters, Zed declares that they need to bring back the one agent who knows about the Serleena incident from the Seventies: “K” (Tommy Lee Jones). Of course, “J” neuralyzed him at the end of the first movie, but apparently the MIB developed a deneuralyzer, so they can use this to restore his memories. “J” heads to rural Massachusetts, where “K” – now called “Kevin” – works as the postmaster. He slowly starts to convince “K” about his past life and gets him to return to the fold.
From there, MIIB basically follows the action. The deneuralyzer doesn’t work perfectly, so “K” struggles to regain all of his past knowledge. Nonetheless, he and “J” resume their prior relationship as they chase the new villain.
What went wrong with MIIB? Pretty much everything, as the movie felt terribly uninspired. On the positive side, Smith and Jones still displayed a fairly good chemistry. Their interaction helped make the original flick memorable, and some of that spark remained on display here. They didn’t click to the degree we saw in 1997, but they nonetheless allowed some of the material to become more interesting than otherwise might have been the case.
Boyle did a decent job as the sexy alien too. No, she failed to reach the disgustingly amusing heights attained by Vincent D’Onofrio in the first movie; he made Edgar a cartoony hoot. However, Boyle brought a sultry nastiness to Serleena that allowed the role to work fairly well.
Otherwise, I found it tough to locate much to praise in MIIB. Probably the film’s biggest fault stemmed from the fact that it essentially did little more than rehash the original. It reversed the roles slightly, as “K” was the experienced one who showed “J” the ropes there, but the two still worked along the same lines. Both plots seemed terribly similar, and they followed the same progressions as well.
Oddly, the visual effects appeared to get worse over the five years between films. I felt very surprised at how weak this material looked in a film with such a high profile and huge budget. Unfortunately, those elements almost uniformly presented cheesy images. From “J”’s ride on Jeff in the subway to Johnny Knoxville’s second head to Frank the Pug’s speech, far too much of MIIB looked unconvincing. That problem actively distracted me from the movie.
Not that a flick with perfect effects would have entranced me either. Can I state that I hated Men In Black II? No, for the product seemed too lackluster to warrant any form of passion in either direction. I can’t call MIIB a genuinely unenjoyable experience, as I didn’t really dislike the time I spent with it. However, it never engaged me in any real way, and much of it felt stale and leaden. The movie showed no signs of inspiration and came across as a limp remake of the original.