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Bet on Black

The fast-paced MIIB looks like a sure summer crowd-pleaser.

Like a jawbreaker that changes color every few seconds, MIIB: Men in Black II delivers a quick buzz, lots of stuff to look at and a totally non-nutritious joy that can only be attained with the aid of artificial flavoring and yellow dye #5. In a nutshell, it's the perfect summer movie. Like its predecessor, the movie is short -- less than ninety minutes, indicating that director Barry Sonnenfeld is the only movie-making former commercial director who remembers that brevity is the soul of wit -- but it's filled to the brim with humor both verbal and visual. And, unlike in some other summer movies we won't be unkind enough to mention, every digitally created gizmo serves a function. At the very least, each one is a sight gag of some sort.

Those who look for plot a in their movies may be unsatisfied (even Scooby-Doo has more narrative thrust than this), but high drama isn't really the point. Evil aliens are coming, and it's up to the MIBs, with the aid of various good aliens, to blast 'em. As we start the movie, Agent J (Will Smith, finally acting grown up) has taken over the role of former partner K (Tommy Lee Jones) as the no-guff workaholic head agent. (Linda Fiorentino's Agent L is glibly written off in a throwaway line.) When K recovers his memory and returns to action, as he inevitably must, J suddenly finds himself regressing subconsciously back to smart-talking sidekick. This may not be the deepest of characterizations, but for a summer blockbuster this short, it comes across as downright profound.

Virtually every character that was even vaguely popular in the first installment is back with even more screen time -- the worm aliens from the coffee room, Tony Shalhoub's pawnbroker with ever-regenerating heads, Frank the talking pug and the MIB headquarters' unflappable doorman. It's a shame Vincent D'Onofrio doesn't return as the villain; in his place we get Lara Flynn Boyle as Serleena, a swarm of serpents posing as an underwear model who's fun to look at, but not for too long (Sonnenfeld, fortunately for us, knows this). MTV's Johnny Knoxville, as a moronic (of course) two-headed henchman, is more fun, and he even gets to give himself the kiss of life, which must have been a lifelong ambition.

Also smartly retained is the original film's conceit that those weird people you see on the street every day just might be aliens -- the scene in which an amnesiac K slowly comes to this realization is at once hilarious and creepy, as is a by now well-known cameo by a certain "eccentric" pop star. Creepier still, perhaps, is David Cross as a reclusive video-store clerk who gets the film's most twisted gag. The aliens are better-looking this time around, which is to say, more convincingly ugly -- computer effects have advanced a fair bit, and there also seem to be more critters created from pure makeup. (Rick Baker once again does the honors, and he deserves an Oscar.)

For Sonnenfeld, MIIB is the solid comeback he's been looking for after the much-derided but visually clever Wild Wild West and the mildly amusing but visually uninteresting Big Trouble. For Smith, it feels like turning a page. Even though he does perform an obligatory mediocre rap song over the end credits, he seems to have finally dropped the Fresh Prince braggadocio that was swiftly getting old. Jones is, of course, an old hand, faltering only in a flashback sequence in which he's called upon to play himself more than twenty years ago and does so simply by appearing with jet-black hair (they should have asked Josh Hartnett, who looks eerily like a young Jones, to cameo). Rosario Dawson, thanklessly saddled with the role of Smith's love interest, is less than she can be, but you get the sense that it may be due to the filmmakers not caring much about her character.

The jokes, courtesy of writers Robert Gordon (Galaxy Quest) and Barry Fanaro (Kingpin) veer from obvious riffs on oblivious New Yorkers to Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart to an ingenious scale-based sight gag to an otherworldly take on bingeing and purging by models. Something for everyone, basically, so if some of the humor seems too blatant, keep an eye out for that which isn't. The opening sequence (far too much fun to spoil here) should touch all bases, and it does so without the aid of any fancy CG effects. All that's missing is AC/DC's "Back in Black." But that can wait for the inevitable next episode.

 
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