Men in Black II
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We now live in the era of the blockbuster. Hollywood tries to sell almost every movie as if it's the greatest event of the year. To help boost their status as blockbusters, these movies typically have hefty running times, pushing well past two hours. But now along comes Men in Black II, which clocks in at a hard-to-believe 88 minutes. I can't remember the last time I saw a live-action Hollywood movie this short.

Most blockbusters are way too long. By design they have little substance, so they rarely have the means to justify their length. In contrast, Men in Black II is a throwback to the low-budget sci-fi of the '50s and '60s. Most of these movies clocked in at 70 to 80 minutes, with only the epics of the genre venturing past 90 minutes.

Because Men in Black II doesn't plod along like most blockbusters, you'll likely hear some viewers complaining that they didn't get their money's worth -- that the movie was too short, like a full-price CD with just 30 minutes of music. But I'm grateful for the brief running time. Here's a movie with no pretensions of being this summer's movie event. Maybe director Barry Sonnenfeld is in part saying he's not going to compete with Attack of the Clones and Spider-Man. He has conceded the summer to these "must see" events and instead created a movie that recognizes its own disposability. Sonnenfeld has crafted a light, fun movie (which is really all that Star Wars is, but somehow George Lucas forgot about this and began taking his franchise a little too seriously).

Unfortunately, however, Men in Black II is such a light, inconsequential movie that it hardly exists at all. You'll have already begun to forget about it before you leave the theater -- as if one of the Men in Black used his neuralyzer on you.

This time around, Will Smith plays the veteran. He's burdened with a well-meaning-but-inept partner (played by Patrick Warburton, of TV's now defunct The Tick). It's only a matter of time before Agent K (Smith) pulls out his neuralyzer and zaps the poor bloke's memory. In fact, K has used his neuralyzer so frequently on past partners that it has become a joke back at the agency's main office. K's most famous partner, Agent J (Tommy Lee Jones), now works in a post office, with no memory of his days as one of the Men in Black. Four years ago, an errant flash of K's neutralizer effectively wiped out his memory. But now there's a new danger -- a mean-spirited alien with tentacles for fingers who takes the form of a sexy lingerie model (played by Lara Flynn Boyle). She's searching for an item that only J knows anything about. So K's first order of business is to restore J's memory and convince him to return to duty -- but J is quite happy delivering TV Guides.

These early scenes with J wearing his postal outfit -- including snazzy standard-issue shorts -- are among the best (and funniest) scenes in the movie. They're only bested by scenes with a talking pug dog who briefly serves as K's partner and croons a whacked-out version of "I Will Survive." But once J rejoins the bureau, the movie becomes plenty familiar and not particularly surprising. Men in Black II is still a fun way to spend 88 minutes, but this new installment seems like a throwaway, existing mainly on attitude.

Sonnenfeld seems to be having fun, however, particularly with a witty opening segment that features Peter Graves as the host of an Unsolved Mysteries-like show. Here, Sonnenfeld is riffing on low budget sci-fi and paying homage to Ed Wood and Roger Corman. But throughout most of the rest of the movie, Sonnenfeld simply retreads scenes from the first Men in Black, such as the visit to Tony Shalhoub's pawn shop.

Maybe it was a mistake for Sonnenfeld to return to this same territory again. Much of the success of the original Men in Black came from its freshness. It wasn't exactly treading new territory, but it did so with a charming full-frontal assault of deadpan humor and outrageous special effects. In this sequel, however, much of the novelty has worn off and all we're left with are Tommy Lee Jones' deadpan one-liners and Will Smith's I-can't-believe-this-is-happening-again gapes. If this were a nightclub comedy act, you'd hear hecklers complaining "get a new act."

[rating: 2.5 of 4 stars]

Studio Web site: Columbia Pictures (
Movie Web site: Men in Black II



Photo credits: © 2002 Columbia Pictures. All rights reserved.