Revisiting the Reviled — ‘Men in Black II’ Tried and Failed to Recapture Its Predecessor’s Charms

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Every week with Revisiting the Reviled, Sean looks at a film that was meant to appeal to geeks and failed, often miserably.

As special effects have gotten better and allowed filmmakers to place expansive, fantastical visions on the screen, one thing has become rarer and rarer in blockbuster cinema: finality. Massive blockbusters are now made with multiple installments in mind. More often than not, they’re films that tease the next installment rather than concluding a story or character arc. But once upon a time, there were blockbusters that weren’t afraid to conclude with some finality. 1997’s Men in Black is a prime example. Tommy Lee Jones’ Agent K explains he’s been training a replacement, not a partner, and has his memory erased as Will Smith’s Agent J becomes the new top agent of the Men in Black. It’s an effective moment that concludes the story arc for each character, while still functioning to tease a future installment. After Men in Black became the second-highest grossing movie of 1997, a sequel was inevitable. Instead of playing off the finality of its predecessor’s conclusion, Men in Black II opted to spend the entirety of its running time to undo the previous film’s finale while simultaneously trying to resurrect the first film’s charm.

Men in Black II opens clever enough with Peter Graves hosting a low-budget conspiracy show that sets the stage for the film’s plot. That plot revolves around the Light of Zartha, an intergalactic McGuffin that the nefarious Serleena (Lara Flynn Boyle) is after. Meanwhile, Agent J (Smith) is having trouble finding a new partner. After wiping the memory of his last partner, J is teamed up with Frank the Dog, a talking pug from the first film – they’re the original Odd Couple! When Laura Vasquez (Rosario Dawson) witnesses the murder of her boss and the hands of Serleena and her two-headed henchman Scrad and Charlie (Johnny Knoxville), she is embroiled in the alien investigations of the Men in Black. But the keys to unlocking the mystery behind the Light of Zartha are buried within the erased psyche of Agent K (Jones), living his days as a postman in Massachusetts. Now the former partners are to work together again and hopefully stop the ruthless Serleena before she brings about the end of the world.

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The greatest failing behind Men in Black II is the film’s futile attempts to recreate the scenario behind the first film. The film apes the plot points of its predecessor at practically every available turn. For example, a murderous alien seeking an intergalactic McGuffin killing someone in a restaurant, and that murder being the reason that Agent J is able to meet his female interest – this occurs in both movies. Instead of J going through the introduction to the secret alien-policing organization, it’s the stern, authoritative K. Over and over, it’s the same joke repeated. This merely diminishes the wit of the first film. As we know, repeating a joke with a slight variation doesn’t make it any more amusing.

Through the desperation to recreate the feel of the first film, Men in Black II loses sight of what the sequel should be doing – expanding the world established in the first film. Instead, we’re presented with extended gags of Frank the Dog. First he wears a suit – a dog in people clothes! – and then later we’re shown him barking along with “Who Let the Dogs Out.” Pure comedy gold.

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In the five years since the first film, the evolution in computer effects actually undermine the wonder behind Men in Black II. While Rick Baker does, once again, provide the film with some wonderful practical alien creations, the sequel places great overemphasis on computer effects. Unlike the practical creations, these computer effects haven’t aged well at all, looking faker than anything in the older, better Men in Black. The overreliance on CGI diminishes director Barry Sonnenfeld’s vibrant visual style. Whether it’s the script by Robert Gordon and Barry Fanaro, or the CG effects, or the endless attempts to recreate the first film, Men in Black II is a mound of wrong choices with diminished returns.

It’s fitting that Men in Black II opens with a cheesy reenactment. The whole film is nothing more than an inferior reenactment of the first film. In waiting five years to produce the sequel, the people behind Men in Black II found themselves on the wrong side of a changing blockbuster landscape. 2002 saw the infancy of the burgeoning superhero film with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, and though Men in Black is based upon a comic book, it was recognized as superhero fare. It would be ten years before Sonnenfeld and company would round out the Men in Black trilogy with the adequately charming third film. While Men in Black II is an undeniably bad movie, it at least has the good sense to run under 90 minutes. But being mercifully short doesn’t absolve Men in Black II of being a cautionary tale of trying to recapture the charms of its predecessor that entirely sacrifices its own personality. After all, a joke’s only funnier the second time around if you can erase the audiences memory after the first time.

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