Being one myself, I'm not in the habit of reviewing the reviewers, but I must say I'm a little mystified by the critical reaction to Men in Black II. Slate's David Edelstein called it "a landmark Hollywood disgrace." David Denby, of The New Yorker, said he "fought to stay awake." And Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman, accusing the movie of being overstuffed with stuff, gave it a C-plus. These are some of my favorite movie critics of all time. How could I be so out of synch with them?
Maybe Will Smith or Tommy Lee Jones zapped me with that neuralizer of theirs, which empties your memory banks of everything you've seen or heard regarding Men in Black. Like the original, Men in Black II doesn't stick with you; it's already drifting into outer space as you lift your butt out of the movie seat. But during its blessedly short running time (90 minutes, if you leave during Smith's end-credits rap song), I found the movie thoroughly entertaining. In fact, the only thing missing from the original is the element of surprise. Despite its $80 million budget, 1997's Men in Black flew in under the radar. We simply weren't prepared for a massive invasion of sci-fi wackiness.
This time, our defenses are up, but director Barry Sonnenfeld and his creative team ' especially production designer Bo Welch and critter creator Rick Baker ' have just enough surprises up their sleeves. And Sonnenfeld, after mauling us with Wild Wild West, has remembered how to keep a giant blockbustersaur light on its feet. One way is by keeping it moving forward; Men in Black II, like Men in Black, travels at the speed of light. But there's just enough time to catch one joke before the next one is flung at our faces. And despite having changed scriptwriters, the sequel has retained the original's sassy wit. My favorite gag involved a race of aliens called the Ballchinnians.
I'll leave it to you to figure out what the Ballchinnians look like ' the males of the species, anyway. (Let's just say it brings a whole new meaning to the phrase "not by the hair on my chinny-chin-chin.") But I should perhaps warn you about Lara Flynn Boyle's Serleena, who assumes the shape of a Victoria's Secret model but, if riled, reassumes the shape of a viper's nest from hell. Once again, we get the plot on a platter; when the cast isn't cracking wise, it's serving us the storyline. And I won't bore you with the details ' something about getting "the light" off the planet before everything explodes.
Less a sequel than a remake, the movie doesn't exactly break new ground, but it manages to unearth some decent gags while plowing the same old ground. Johnny Knoxville, from MTV's "Jackass," shows up as Scrad, a two-headed something or other who, perhaps taking a cue from Chang and Eng, gives himself mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. And Frank the Pug, who had a memorable cameo the first time around, ups his screen time with shtick that can best be described as doggie stylin'. Only Rosario Dawson, as Will Smith's love interest, fails to leave much of an impression, causing me to miss Linda Fiorentino's morgue mama all the more. Why was she deep-sixed?
If you ask me, both Smith and Jones showed up ready to earn their considerable paychecks. (Jones is, if anything, even more inward-drawn.) And the whole so-uncool-they're-cool thing ' the suits, the ties, the Ray Bans ' still has some mileage in it. As does the movie's premise, which is that New York City harbors aliens not just from all over the world but from all over all the worlds. ("Bring me your tired, your poor, your multiple-flippered.") I did find the celebrity cameos a little dated this time. Martha Stewart is so '90s, Michael Jackson so '80s. But the rest of the movie, which took five years to get here, arrives just in time. It's been a long, hot summer.