I have to admit, I’m not the biggest fan of any of the Men in Black films. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike, it’s just that they tend to be enjoyable and entertaining… and yet completely forgettable. Of the bunch, Men in Black II (or MIIB) is probably the most forgettable. Again, it’s not that it’s terrible – although some elements flat-out don’t work – just that there’s not really anything exceptional about it either. It’s a reasonably competent comedy adventure, even if it’s never an especially good one.
I’ve always thought that the best parts of these films had little to do with the script or the plot or the development. I just always figured there was some bizarre comedic genius at work when it came to teaming up Will Smith with Tommy Lee Jones. The pair just work off one-another so perfectly that it’s hard to believe nobody thought of the pairing before. Smith is so hyperactive and energetic that it takes an understated performer like Tommy Lee Jones to really and truly play off him successfully. The fact that Jones reportedly disliked the script to the first film so much that the pair heavily improvised is just icing on the cake.
That element is here in full force. Smith and Jones still have a delightful chemistry with each playing to the other’s strength. Smith is never able to completely overwhelm Jones’ low-energy high-intensity performance, and so both men balance the film remarkably well. The movie is at its strongest in focusing on that dynamic, growing off the dynamic from the first film. The idea that Will Smith’s J is no longer just a rookie, and indeed is arguably more experienced that Tommy Lee Jones’ amnesiac K, feels like a smart and logical development.
The other aspect of the movies that I really liked was the idea that the truly bizarre and wonderful is hiding behind the nearest door, and that we might be just too jaded or cynical to notice it. “That’s the problem with all y’all New Yorkers!” J admonishes a crowd at one point. “‘Oh no, we’ve seen it all!’ ‘Oh no, a 600 foot worm, save us Mr. Black Man!’ I ask you nicely to move forward to the next car, y’all just sit there like…” There is a lovely sequence towards the middle of the film where K steps outside only to breath in precisely how wonderfully weird New York actually is, no matter how we might try to skirt around that fact.
It’s a nice little scene, and there’s all manner of small elements that play into it. I like the idea of a gigantic alien worm surfing the subway system, and I adore the idea of an entire alien civilisation trapped inside a a locker at Grand Central Station. Elements like this distinguish Men in Black from most science fantasy franchises, dealt with in a manner that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but is not entirely devoid of imagination.
However, these elements are offset by other problems. The writing is clunky. the introductory sequence is a great idea in concept – introducing exposition through a sixties television show modeled on The Twilight Zone – but the execution lets it down. There’s no real emotional connection with the film outside J and K and their reluctant bromance. This causes a problem towards the climax of the film as the nature of a secondary character is revealed.
It doesn’t help that the CGI is a bit dodgy. I know the movie was produced a decade ago, so it’s unfair to hold it to modern standards, but quite a few of the CGI sequences quite simply don’t hold up. However, the practical effects are impressive and work far better. I should also note that the editing and continuity of the film are a bit of a mess. There are several very obvious mistakes made at key points, where objects that were removed in the last take are still clearly visible in the next. I know it’s bad form to point out such mistakes, but there are some really obvious examples.
There are also some clunky set-ups. The most obvious appears relatively early, when the alien monster morphs into the form of an underwear model. Not two seconds later, a goon grabs her and sticks a knife to her throat. What? Did he not see he shapeshift out of a weird space-worm thing? Does he not wonder why she’s walking around Central Park in next-to-nothing? My own crazy theory is that he’s blind. After all, he does introduce himself, “Hey pretty lady, you taste good.” That’s the only explanation the makes sense. The fact that it set sup her next line (“yeah, you too”) is just icing on the cake.
The supporting cast is relatively week. It’s easy to see why Lara Flynn Boyle was cast in the role of the villain, but she really can’t act. This was less of a problem back in Twin Peaks, when the show was very clearly an affectionate send-up of the types of television soap operas that would feature that sort of wooden acting, but it is quite painful here. In fact, it’s almost (but not quite) as painful as watching Johnny Knoxville trying to act. No offense to the guy, he’s good at what he normally does, but maybe a special-effects-laden blockbuster was hardly the role to flex his thespian muscles.
On the other hand, Rosario Dawson does her best with some dodgy material, and Rip Torn is absolutely awesome. It’s also nice to see Patrick Warburton as Agent T. I am a big fan of Warburton, and he seems to be having quite the time as the latest in a long line of replacement agents. That said, the fact that J takes it on himself to nueralise his fellow agents does make him seem like a bit of a self-righteous jack-ass. Surely it’s their decision as to how they are acclimatising to the job, right?
Men in Black II is not terrible, but it’s not particularly good. It’s solid middle-of-the-road, with fairly average scripting and plotting (and casting) that is compensated for by Sonnenfield’s wonderful ability to make the mundane wonderous and a fantastic chemistry from the two leading actors.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | Barry Sonnenfeld, film, Johnny Knoxville, Jone, josh brolin, Lara Flynn Boyle, Men In Black, Men in Black II, Men in Black III, Michael Stuhlbarg, Movies, non-review review, Patrick Warburton, review, Smith, tommy lee jones, will smith