Men In Black II
Neuralized Once Again.
By Patrick Reed

"If I hear one more question about DJ Jazzy Jeff..."

As a recent article by the New York Times' Rick Lyman pointed out, while nearly every other sector of the entertainment industry is suffering from lowered sales/ratings/rentals, the motion picture industry is garnering record-setting levels of lucre. Marketing is undoubtedly crucial to this year's burgeoning bonanza, but stop for a moment and scan the list of top earners dating back to the last holiday season: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and Ocean's Eleven, on up to the more recent summer kick-offs Star Wars: Episode II and Spider-Man. These are cinch hits, almost ready-made, the sort of big-time event pictures that, good or bad, a helluva lot of people feel absolutely compelled to see. Hollywood may be playing it safe, but then, doesn't it almost always do that? The recently-deceased mogul Lew Wasserman, who helped create the blockbuster formula by greenlighting Jaws in 1975, is no doubt smiling down on his scions in the studio lots: Hollywood is on such a white-hot roll right now that the films are selling themselves like never before.

Which brings us to Men in Black II. Aside from the fact that the first movie was released way back in 1997-a bit dated for a follow-up, according to modern sequel scheduling-all of the ingredients for a pre-sold smash are in place. Will Smith and director Barry Sonnenfeld last teamed up for Wild, Wild West in summer 1999, but even that bloated-budget bore almost broke even in the end, and the first Men in Black was one of the biggest hits of the late 90s. Tommy Lee Jones is back as well; though his star may have dimmed a bit since appearing in what seemed every other movie a decade or so ago, his rapport with the then-former Fresh Prince/future Ali was one of the most appealing aspects of MIB I, necessitating his return. Steven Spielberg is involved (as executive producer), as are the highest echelon of special-effects artisans. Corporate sponsorship has dug deep roots in the new MIB's edifice (on hand are Sprint, Burger King, and humorously, considering the current headlines, Martha Stewart). Fittingly, there's a juvenile Will Smith song and video to tie the movie in with his brand new CD. Perhaps most important is the July 4th weekend release date, same as in '97-and for that matter, remember Independence Day's staggering box office opening in 1996 that made Smith an A-list star? The track record is set; there's absolutely no way this movie will under-perform.

So, fans of the comic book, and sci-fi fans in general, will have to stomach Men In Black II's many capitulations to the massesbut that aside, is it still worth seeing? Well, the plot is, of course, irrelevant, just as in the first MIB. It generates from a 25-year-old incident where good aliens were threatened by the evil, form-shifting alien Serleena (astutely choosing the figure of Lara Flynn Boyle to reside within for most of the movie), and saved by Jones's Agent Kay. Now the evil alien is back to settle the score, and Smith's Agent Jay must locate the retired, memory-erased Kay in order to thwart Serleena and save the planet. Previous characters (Rip Torn's Chief Zed) mix with newcomers (Rosario Dawson elicits some brief, half-hearted romantic stirrings from Smith; MTV moron Johnny Knoxville gets a lot of early screen time as a two-headed alien, and then fades), but the two stars dominate, and the dry back-and-forth between Will and Tommy Lee is revived. There's some inventiveness in the script-the concept of parallel, miniaturized universes is employed for the film's biggest laughs-but it mainly serves to speed the story along from special effect to special effect. Speaking of which, the collaboration between Rick Baker's makeup wizards at Cinovation and the visual team at Industrial Light and Magic bucks the current trend toward over-reliance on computer-generation, meaning that a lot of MIB II's effects look better-more realistic-than, say, Episode II's or Spider-Man's.

So, let's review: stars = same, special effects = same, script and story = very similar (Danny Elfman's score is a highlight too, just as before). Not-so-surprising conclusion: this is basically the same movie as MIB I. The memory-erasing procedure called "neuralizing" utilized by the men in black truly sums up the overall viewing experience; it's as if the audience's collective cognitive slate was wiped clean sometime in the '97-'02 interim, making it mandatory to indulge in MIB's harmless pap once again. In the end, no one will really be worse for wear-it's summer, after all, in the midst of a record Hollywood onslaught, and the next "must-see" is only a week or two away.