Men in Black II

(Barry Sonnenfeld, USA, 2002)


The filmmaker Raúl Ruiz once suggested that there are two great forces which drive the cinema: mystery and ministry. At first thought, these might seem absolutely opposed. Mystery designates all that is poetic, spiritual and ineffable, while ministry stands for everything routine, formulaic and bureaucratic.

But, as Ruiz reminds us, mystery and ministry have a way of changing places. Magical moments in pop culture can become awfully predictable, while the conventional ways of doing things sometimes become so rigid and self-enclosed that they tip into full-blown irrationality.

Comedy often relies on the moment when mystery becomes ministry, and vice versa. This is especially true of the Men in Black series. The germ of the series was surely in all those '80s and early '90s movies (like Meet the Applegates, 1991) which suggested that, in a world as weird as ours, aliens or monsters from other planets would hardly be noticed. As if to hark back to that period, Men in Black II even features a cameo from a decidedly spooky-looking Michael Jackson.

TV shows like Third Rock from the Sun have already turned this into an old gag. The first Men in Black (1997) movie revived the premise in two ways: by amping up the elaborate special effects, and advancing the notion that aliens of all shapes and sizes form an invisible bureaucracy that silently labours to protect our Earth.

Like Ghostbusters 2 (1989), the Men in Black sequel expends a lot of energy trying to find a good reason to replay the plot of the original. Agent J (Will Smith) keeps vaporising the memory-banks of his gormless partners in cosmic law enforcement, while the former Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) works in an out-of-the-way post office. One of the film's cleverest scenes reveals to us the true nature of his co-workers.

Once reprogrammed, K rejoins with J to battle Serleena (Lara Flynn Boyle), a gruesome, alien villain that takes the first, voluptuous, human form it spies in a Victoria's Secret advertisement. Serleena is on the trail of one those mysterious, mystical 'energy sources' beloved of Hollywood's supernatural fantasies. En route, she decides to immobilise the entire alien-police underworld in its hidden headquarters.

Most of the jokes in Men in Black II transform the alien into the mundane. Visitors from other planets wait in line and check in at a special, secret airport, with all the usual fast-food chains awaiting them past customs. Entire, miniature worlds exist within orbs and lockers. Messy confrontations occur on city streets, in subways and atop public buildings, with the mass of normal civilians mostly ignoring proceedings.

Where Men in Black had the thrill of a novel idea well done, Men in Black II is a generally mechanical sequel. Beyond the introductory material of the first twenty minutes, the manic forward-thrust of the plot (devised by Robert Gordon and Barry Fanaro) leaves too little room for gags based on design and technological gadgetry. And the emphasis on spectacular action above all else leaves a curious sub-plot involving the innocent Rita (Rosario Dawson) literally dangling in outer space.

As in the original film, moments of ingestion, dismemberment and destruction involving Serleena and other creatures approach the gore level of an extravagant horror movie (thanks to make-up wizard Rick Baker and a large army of effects technicians), but manage to remain unserious and harmless.

Outrageousness of any sort has been leeched from Men in Black II. We are far from the inspired, acid lunacy of Tim Burton's Mars Attacks! (1996). There is no frisson in the meeting of comedy and horror, and no attempt at social or political satire beyond a few barbed remarks from Smith on race relations. Even the pop culture references are a little thin on the ground, despite the wonderful sight of Frank the Pug (the movie's most lovable character) barking in sync to "Who Let the Dogs Out?".

As for the series' trademark image of cool – guys in black clothes and sunglasses – this transparent attempt at recreating the appeal of The Blues Brothers (1980) falls foul of the same problem that beset that film's sequel, Blues Brothers 2000 (1998). For if the repetition of a successful formula strikes viewers as merely opportunistic, ministry crushes mystery once and for all.

MORE Sonnenfeld: The Addams Family, For Love or Money, Get Shorty

© Adrian Martin July 2002

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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