Men in Black II (2002)
Film review #534
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
SYNOPSIS: Agent J is having trouble keeping an agency partner, as he feels like none of them are cut out for the job. When Serleena, an evil alien, comes to Earth looking for an artefact of immense power called the Light of Zartha, she will stop at nothing to acquire it. Unfortunately, the only person who knows where the light is hidden is Agent K, whose memories Agent J wiped five years ago when he neuralised him. Agent J goes to retrieve Agent K, somehow restore his memories, and hopefully save the world from an alien threat once again…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Men in Black II is a 2002 sci-fi film and the sequel to the 1997 film Men in Black. The film starts of with Agent J, who five years on from the events of the first film, has gone from a rookie to one of the top agents in the agency. He chases down Jeff, a monster worm who travels through the New York subway. J’s new partner T, seems to be not up to the job, and so J neuralises him and wipes his memory to lead a normal life. Agency leader Z laments J’s constant neuralising of his partners, including L, who became an agent at the end of the first film. Meanwhile, an alien named Serleena lands on Earth looking for the “Light of Zartha,” an energy source of immense power that was supposedly taken off Earth years ago, and she has been destroying planets across the universe looking for it. The only person that knows where it is is Agent K, who was neuralised himself, and so agent J must retrieve him and recover his memories before Serleena destroys everything.
The film’s structure and plot is very similar to the first time…a bit too similar. The film basically just role reverses the two main characters from the first film; with Agent J now being the veteran agent, and now Agent K without his memories is technically the rookie. You can see how this might be an interesting way to mix things up for the sequel and have the characters take on new roles, but it really is just a straight swap between them. Also, Will Smith doesn’t really work as the “straight” guy. Another problem with this is that when Agent K does get his memory back, the roles reverse again, and Agent J suddenly becomes the wisecracking rookie again, undoing all of his character development. This feels very much like a backwards step, although in some senses it is for the best, as the two can get into the roles that work properly for them. Going through all the trouble of getting K’s memories just to have them revert to the status quo is a pretty weak payoff though. The second element of the story concerning the “Light of Zartha” is again just a retread of the first film, in that the agents must find a small artifact that is actually a massive power source. There’s really nothing new that the film offers here.
Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are still appealing and entertaining in their roles, and still have great chemistry. The whole role reversal element doesn’t really do anything for their characters though. Frank the Pug takes the role of “rookie” before K returns, but it just doesn’t have the same dynamic, and relies very much on the repeated joke of Frank being a dog and that’s it. The supporting cast of Z and the worms make a return and are fine in their roles, and there’s a strange cameo by Michael Jackson who wants to be “Agent M,” which I’m not really sure what to think of. A lot of the pop culture gags, such as this and Frank’s barking to “Who Let the Dogs Out” definitely ages the film more than anything else. Serleena as a villain is quite boring and underwhelming, both from being very similar to the first film’s villain, and Lara Flynn Boyle’s dry and uninterested delivery just doesn’t work. Johnny Knoxville’s character, serving as Serleena’s henchman, is pretty underwhelming and annoying too: he also just…vanishes near the end of the film, making him seem extremely pointless. The tone of the film is a bit all over the place: the added pop-culture references, as mentioned, definitely age the film, and while some elements of the film feel a bit more geared towards younger audiences, there’s also a few darker elements that are definitely intended for older viewers, so it’s hard to pin down the overall feel of the film. The pop culture references were apparently added in by Barry Fanaro, who revised the first draft of the script, and this is something the original writer, Robert Gordon, avoided doing, which I think he was right about. Fanro did apparently reintroduce Agent K earlier in the film with his revisions, so that’s definitely a plus for him. The director, Barry Sonnenfeld, also took issue with the love story element between Agent J and Laura, because Will Smith doesn’t work as the serious guy (at that time anyway). This very much seems like a film in which no real vision got it’s way, and the conflicts at all these levels compromises in a very safe repeat of the first film.
Overall, Men in Black II definitely has some entertaining elements, and is held together by the main cast and their chemistry. A confusing mix of tone and visions from multiple people involved really hamper the film’s ability to drive the franchise forward, and supported by a weak cast of minor characters and cheap gags, you’ll be left feeling that you haven’t gained anything from watching this film. It’s perhaps worth a watch once, but the first film does everything better.
There’s perhaps one thing about the sequel (controversially) that I will say surpasses the first film though: I prefer the theme “Nod ya Head” to the “Men in Black” song from the first one. I’m sure that will make me some enemies.