Bet on Black

Like a jawbreaker that changes color every few seconds that you suck it, Men in Black II delivers a quick buzz, lots to look at and a junk-food joy that can be attained only with the aid of artificial flavoring and yellow dye No. 5. Like its predecessor, the movie is short — less than ninety minutes (Barry Sonnenfeld is the only former commercial director making movies who remembers that brevity is the soul of wit) — but it’s filled to the brim with verbal and visual humor. Every digitally created gizmo is a sight gag of some sort.

Those looking for plot in their movies may be unsatisfied; even Scooby-Doo has more narrative thrust than this. But high drama isn’t the point. As we start the movie, Agent J (Will Smith, finally acting grown-up) has taken over for onetime partner K (Tommy Lee Jones) as the no-guff workaholic head agent. When K recovers his memory and returns to action, as he inevitably must, J suddenly finds himself regressing to smart-talking sidekick — not the deepest characterization, but for a short summer blockbuster, it’s downright profound.

It’s a shame Vincent D’Onofrio doesn’t return as the villain. Instead, 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.)

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 is David Cross as a reclusive video-store clerk, who gets the film’s most twisted gag.

For Sonnenfeld, MIB 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 a page has turned. Despite his obligatory mediocre rap song over the end credits, Smith seems finally to have dropped the Fresh Prince braggadocio that was swiftly getting stale.

The jokes, courtesy of writers Robert Gordon (Galaxy Quest) and Barry Fanaro (Kingpin), veer from obvious riffs on oblivious New Yorkers to an ingenious scale-based sight gag and an otherworldly take on bulimic models. Something for everyone. The opening sequence, far too much fun to spoil here, touches all bases without the aid of CGI. All that’s missing is AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” But that can wait for the inevitable next installment.

Categories: Movies