Mr. Jones and Mr. Smith are back. The space monsters are funny. The little people in the Grand Central Station locker are a stitch. And Frank, the talking street snitch/pug dog, is often hilarious.
So why is "Men in Black II," probably one of the most eagerly awaited sequels of the past several years, so relatively sparkless and disappointing?
"MIB II" is a sequel that seems to have everything going for it, not the least being those creaseless black suits, super-hip Ray Ban sunglasses and unflappable attitudes that made Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith the surprise smash-hit comedy duo of 1997 as agents Kay and Jay of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, Division 6. That's the agency, if you'll recall from the first "MIB," that keeps tabs on all the scaled, furry and bug-eyed extraterrestrials who actually live among us - and who were imagined and visualized with loving, screwball, expensive skill in director Barry Sonnenfeld's movie.
Superficially, the producers seem to have made all the right moves. Most of the other key players from "MIB" - both before and behind the camera - have been persuaded to show up again, including Sonnenfeld, creature-makeup whiz Rick Baker and some old "MIB" cast members who can still grab the screen, including Rip Torn as dour-faced agency head Zed, and Tony Shalhoub as the sleaze-of-sleazes alien Jeebs. The movie is so loaded that, at least for a while, all it needs to do is bring back Agent Kay from the "neuralization" that blanked his mind at the end of "MIB" and reunite him with his buddy Jay.
Once they're back together, Jones and Smith really do click again. Jones' glaring, brainy, barbed-wire persona plays neatly against Smith's genial nice-guy savoir faire. And the new movie's additions seem amusing and stimulating, too, with Lara Flynn Boyle as Serleena, a wicked, many-tentacled extraterrestrial disguised as a sultry lingerie model, and her two-headed half-wit cohort, Scrad/Charlie, played by Johnny Knoxville (of MTV's "Jackass"). They're two bad monsters bent on locating a long-lost device that can destroy Earth. Plus, there's Rosario Dawson as the hormone-raising pizzeria worker, an unwitting witness to Serleena's space depravities.
Why is so much of the snap and surprise gone this time? Why does the ice-cool camaraderie and sizzling chemistry between Jones' Kay and Smith's Jay fail to beguile as much? Why do the jokes now seem so flat and unfizzy?
Perhaps it's the zeitgeist; we're a long way from the 1997 days when gags about alien invasions seemed so new, funny and irreverent. Perhaps it's the dubious strategy of delaying Kay and Jay's reunion until over a third of the movie has passed.
Or perhaps it's the fact that the one key player who's missing here is writer Ed Solomon, who has been replaced (not very inspiringly) by Robert Gordon ("Galaxy Quest") and Barry Fanaro ("The Crew").
In the blizzard of outrageously funny special effects that graced the first "MIB" - and the marvelous deadpan banter of Jones and Smith - people may have forgotten how snappy, tangy and full of dead-on wisecracks and gags that first script was. The new one is something else: a business-as-usual blockbuster blueprint that rarely surprises you. It's a prototypical big-Hollywood redo in which even the potentially cool jokes - including the opening Ed Wood-style TV docudrama narrated by Peter Graves, the subway monster who nearly eats up a train (with Jay inside), the all-conspiracy video store with an Oliver Stone display figure, and the cameo appearances by Michael Jackson and Martha Stewart - tend to sputter, though with one exception.
Halfway though their investigations Kay and Jay find a Grand Central Station locker and open it to find a small world of carousing little people who hail them as gods. Suddenly, the movie recaptures the batty zest and spirit of the first. But it does so only briefly.
If you're looking for a balance sheet on "Men in Black II," it's easy to predict huge box-office numbers (at least initially) for this would-be holiday lollapalooza. But if you're looking for a movie as good as the first, you'd better rent 1997's "MIB" at the local video store - even the stores that don't specialize in conspiracies.
"Men in Black II"
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld; written by Robert Gordon, Barry Fanaro; photographed by Greg Gardiner; edited by Steven Weisberg; production designed by Bo Welch; music by Danny Elfman; produced by Walter F. Parkes, Laurie MacDonald. A Columbia Pictures release; opens Wednesday, June 24. Running time: 1:22. MPAA rating: PG-13 (sci-fi action violence, some provocative humor).
Kay - Tommy Lee Jones
Jay - Will Smith
Zed - Rip Torn
Serleena - Lara Flynn Boyle
Scrad/Charlie - Johnny Knoxville
Laura Vasquez - Rosario Dawson
Jeebs - Tony Shalhoub
Tee - Patrick Warburton