'Men in Black II': Duds, dudes work second time around

Posted: Wednesday, July 03, 2002

With ''Men in Black II,'' as with its predecessor, clothes make the movie.

Both films work passably well not so much for their overload of creature effects but for those dark suits and sunglasses, suitable uniforms for the cool comic charisma of Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith.

The story is no great shakes, the jokes certainly aren't out of this world, and the visuals are nothing beyond what you'll find in umpteen other effects-driven flicks.

So it's got to be the duds and the dudes.

The aura of ''Men in Black'' is akin to that of ''The Blues Brothers,'' which owed its success not to the world's biggest car crashes but the idea of John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd running around in black suits and glasses and copping an attitude.

The computer effects, alien puppets and other visual trappings are bigger and better in ''Men in Black II'' than in the original, but the film still lives and dies in the relationship between the wiseacre Agent Jay (Smith) and the surly Agent Kay (Jones).

Director Barry Sonnenfeld, returning for the sequel, does not mess with that winning combination, so count on an enjoyable dose of more of the same from Smith and Jones (with the added attraction of Jones going postal in a mailman's dorky shirt and shorts for his early scenes, an image almost worth the price of admission by itself).

The movie picks up five years after the original, with Jay now the hotshot agent in the secret government unit that polices alien life on Earth. Kay, his memory obliterated after his retirement in the first movie, grumpily supervises a rural postal facility, unaware of his past career as an alien buster.

But MIB boss Zed (Rip Torn), realizing one of Kay's past close encounters holds the key to a new alien menace, dispatches Jay to bring back his old partner and restore his memory.

The danger comes from Serleena, a shape-shifting beastie that comes to Earth disguised as a Victoria's Secret model (Lara Flynn Boyle) to hunt for an alien artifact she can use to destroy a rival planet.

The story never gels much beyond that, but no matter. This is a film of gags hanging along a loose narrative thread, so it doesn't really hurt that the plot is undercooked.

What fun there is to be had comes in watching Jay and Kay go through the old motions, zapping things with their elephantine ray guns, wiping memories with their little ''neuralizers,'' and hamming it up with old associates. Tony Shalhoub returns as Jeebs, the pawnshop owner with the renewable head, while the filmmakers wisely expand the presence of the amusing alien Worm Guys and especially Frank the talking pug (voiced by Tim Blaney), who steals every scene he's in.

Newcomers are led by Rosario Dawson as Laura Vasquez, a witness to Serleena's shenanigans who proves so charming and attractive that the lovelorn Jay cannot bring himself to follow protocol and neuralize her memory.

Dawson, who has quietly built up a list of impressive credits in mediocre studio films (''Josie and the Pussycats'') and little-seen independent projects (''Chelsea Walls''), holds her own against Smith and Jones in her first chance to shine in a really big film for a really big audience. With good dramatic credits behind her and an endearing comic touch here, Dawson is one to watch down the road.

Johnny Knoxville brings slapstick relief as Serleena's two-headed, half-witted henchman. Patrick Warburton adds mild humor in a brief scene as Jay's newest unfit partner.

A handful of cameos also provide some chuckles (be alert for a hilarious bit involving a certain ''Agent M''). Unfortunately for Martha Stewart, her quick TV appearances throughout the movie will draw more laughs and snorts than intended considering her insider-trading dilemma.



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