Film Reviews

Bet on Black

Like a jawbreaker that changes color every few seconds you suck it, MIIB: Men in Black II delivers a quick buzz, lots of stuff to look at and a totally non-nutritious joy that can only be attained with the aid of artificial flavorings and Yellow #5. It's the perfect summer movie. Like its predecessor, the movie is short--less than 90 minutes (indicating that director Barry Sonnenfeld is the only former commercial director making movies who remembers that brevity is the soul of wit)--but it's filled with verbal and visual humor. Unlike in some summer movies we won't be unkind enough to mention, every digitally created gizmo serves a function. At the very least, each one is a sight gag of some sort.

Those looking for plot in their movies may be unsatisfied, as even Scooby-Doo has more narrative thrust than this, but high drama isn't really the point. Evil aliens are coming, and it's up to the MIBs, with the aid of various good aliens, to blast 'em. Agent J (Will Smith, finally acting grown-up) has taken over the role of former partner K (Tommy Lee Jones) as the no-guff workaholic head agent (Linda Fiorentino's Agent L is glibly written off in a throwaway line). When K recovers his memory and returns to action, as he inevitably must, J suddenly finds himself regressing subconsciously back to smart-talking sidekick. This may not be the deepest of characterization, but for a summer blockbuster this short, it comes across as downright profound.

Most of the characters from the first Black return--the worm aliens from the coffee machine, Tony Shalhoub's pawnbroker with ever-regenerating heads, Frank the talking pug (now more than ever taking his cue from Robert Smigel's Triumph the Comic Insult Dog, not to mention the bulldog in Little Nicky) and the MIB headquarters' unflappable doorman. It's a shame Vincent D'Onofrio doesn't return as the villain; in his place we get Lara Flynn Boyle as Serleena, a swarm of serpents posing as an underwear model; she's fun to look at but not for too long (Sonnenfeld, fortunately for us, knows this). MTV's Johnny Knoxville, as a moronic (of course) two-headed henchman, is more enjoyable, and he even gets to give himself the kiss of life, which must have been a lifelong ambition.

Also (smartly) retained is the original film's conceit that those weird people you see on the street every day just might be aliens--the scene in which an amnesiac K slowly comes to this realization is at once hilarious and creepy, as is a by-now well-known cameo by a certain "eccentric" pop star. Creepier still, perhaps, is David Cross as a reclusive video-store clerk who gets the film's most twisted gag, a near-throwaway more appropriate to Sonnenfeld's Addams Family movies. The aliens are better-looking this time around, which is to say more convincingly ugly--computer effects have advanced a fair bit, and there also seems to be more critters created from pure makeup.

For Sonnenfeld, MIIB is the solid comeback he's been looking for after the much-derided but visually clever Wild Wild West and the mildly amusing but visually uninteresting Big Trouble. For Smith, it feels like turning a page. Even though he does get an obligatory mediocre rap song to perform over the end credits, he seems to have finally dropped the Fresh Prince braggadocio that was getting old. Jones is, of course, an old hand, faltering only in a flashback sequence wherein he's called upon to play himself more than 20 years ago, and does so simply by appearing in jet black hair (they should have asked Josh Hartnett, who looks eerily like a young Jones, to cameo). Rosario Dawson, thanklessly saddled with the role of Smith's love interest, is less than she can be, but you get the sense that it may be the result of the filmmakers not caring much about her character except as a plot device.

The jokes, courtesy of writers Robert Gordon (Galaxy Quest) and Barry Fanaro (Kingpin), veer from obvious riffs on oblivious New Yorkers to Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart to an inspired scale-based sight gag and an otherworldly take on binging and purging by models. Something for everyone, basically, so if some of the humor seems too blatant, keep an eye out for that which isn't. The opening sequence, far too entertaining to spoil, should touch all bases, and it does so without the aid of fancy CG effects. All that's missing is AC/DC's "Back in Black." But that can wait for the inevitable next installment.

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Luke Y. Thompson