Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:28 - Released 7/3/02

Barry Sonnenfeld's long-awaited follow-up to his 1997 sci-fi comedy blockbuster Men In Black is apparently getting some bad press for being "more of the same." I'm not sure what the critics are expecting—Men In Black II is more of the same, and that's why it's so entertaining. Reuniting Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, one of the best onscreen duos since Matthau & Lemmon, MIBII does retrace some steps through New York City's alien crime community, but it introduces enough new material to be worth the ticket price, and features a rather amusing role reversal between the two agents, with Agent J (Smith) showing the former Agent K (Jones) around the halls of the top-secret MIB facility after K had his memory erased at the end of the first film. Director Sonnenfeld, who spent the 1980s as a cinematographer and then abruptly switched to directing in 1991, has had his share of hits (Get Shorty, Big Trouble) and misses (Wild Wild West), but generally maintains the witty tone for a worthy continuation of the established MIB story.

Written by Robert Gordon and Barry Fanaro, based on the comic book story by Lowell Cunningham, the plot involves an evil, wormy creature called Serleena who comes to Earth (assuming the shape of Lara Flynn Boyle) and, with the help of a two-headed buffoon named Scrad (Johnny Knoxville, playing both heads), attempts to find the mysterious Light Of Zartha, which will apparently give her power over the entire universe. As soon as she shows up, MIB Chief Zed (Rip Torn) realizes they'll have to call the legendary Agent K out of retirement because he's the only one who knows where the Light is. K's former partner J, who has been having trouble finding a new associate anyway, must travel to a rural town in Massachusetts (where K works as postmaster) and convince him to return to his old line of work. Not to mention restore his entire memory.

What made Men In Black work was the exquisite partnership of its two leads, along with a nice mix of cool effects and a multitude of memorable alien characters, created with every medium from rubber masks to puppetry to computer graphics. The fact that Sonnenfeld has chosen not to mess with a good thing doesn't necessarily mean he's out of ideas, but the formula can't sustain itself indefinitely. Among the new aspects of this film are the replacement of female lead Linda Fiorentino (who reportedly won her MIB role from director Sonnenfeld in a poker game—perhaps she lost this time) with the fresh-faced Rosario Dawson, and some surprising cameos by the likes of Martha Stewart, Michael Jackson, and Sonnenfeld himself. Also present is Patrick Warburton in a brief but amusing role as J's would-be partner, T. Returning from the first film are Tony Shalhoub as the gritty pawn shop owner who seems to have an unlimited supply of replacement heads, and Frank the dog (voiced by Tim Blaney), whose role has been expanded greatly for the sequel.

Smith and Jones perform together as smoothly as if they never left the studio, and the script sparkles with very much the same fluorescence. Villainess Boyle pales in comparison to MIB's Vincent D'Onofrio; she basically plays the same character she plays on The Practice, except she's traded in the severe ponytail for a full mane of wavy black hair—and she has thousands of worms coming out of her. Oh, wait, she does have that on The Practice. While the film's ending doesn't overtly hint at the possibility of future installments, it certainly doesn't rule them out, either. I imagine the answer to that will be determined by that most venerated of Hollywood formulas, the cha-ching factor. ****

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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