Men In Black II

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Tommy Lee Jones has one of the great faces in movies. As Men In Black II's Agent K?a retired secret agent who leaves his job as a post office manager to track immigrant space aliens and bust the ones that are up to no good?his sandblasted mug and vertically creased cheekbones testify to experiences most civilized people could only imagine. His refusal to move that face even under the most extreme and even horrifying circumstances bespeaks a tremendous professional discipline, and a deep grasp of how opaque a man must be in order to thrive within bureaucracy.

Up close, K appears to have been drawn by Chuck Jones; he's Bugs Bunny to Will Smith's Daffy Duck. When all hell breaks loose?when a giant worm tears through a building roof right behind him, or a tentacled space demon wraps him up in a perverted caricature of a lovers' embrace?Jones' eyes show no fear, only mental math. He constructs K as a man/machine who's constantly thinking about his next move?even if (especially if) you don't see him thinking.

Would it surprise you to learn that director Barry Sonnenfeld and his writers don't even begin to understand or appreciate how great Jones is in this part? Would it surprise you to learn that the filmmakers keep Jones offscreen for nearly a third of the movie, and that the movie only becomes tolerable the first time we see him in closeup, and hear that great Texas drone, reeling off instructions on the proper way to wrap a parcel? Would it surprise you to learn that Men In Black II has no heart and no soul, only an affably whorish kind of professionalism?

Of course it wouldn't, because you've seen too many of these sorts of films to expect anything resembling emotion or even mild involvement. The first Men In Black got startlingly positive reviews; its wide-angle deadpan slapstick, 60s-style pop-art sets and superficially clever commentary on immigration and racism were just fresh enough to obscure the fact that it was basically Ghostbusters all over again (only this time, the black guy wasn't an afterthought). It probably helped that MIB I came out in the late 90s, after several years of The X Files, a spate of conspiracy and alien films and the real-life, ready-for-the-Internet nightmares of Oklahoma City, Waco and World Trade Center I. Men In Black's light tone gently tweaked the rancid tabloid paranoia that had seeped into the American mainstream; its vision of principled, gadget-toting, alien-busting secret agents reassured viewers that our government had things under control. It was, in many ways, the perfect summer movie?just clever enough to be mistaken for smart, just hip enough to be mistaken for relevant, just funny enough to be mistaken for hilarious and chock-full of very expensive creatures and action setpieces, all deployed with a light touch that told viewers, "Don't worry, we're not taking this stuff seriously, either."

The sequel offers more of the same plot elements, and the same "Don't worry, be happy" attitude. Smith's character, Agent J, a newbie in the original, is now a more world-weary, embittered man?more like K, who retired and had to have his memory wiped clean with a neuralyzer to prevent him from revealing agency secrets. The agency is still a cosmic combination of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Central Intelligence Agency, charged with monitoring the space creatures that live among us. There's a plot, amusingly described in a cheeseball, In Search Of-type tv show narrated by Peter Graves: 25 years ago, some bad aliens tracked some good aliens to Earth to capture the good aliens' all-powerful energy source; with help from Agent K and the Men In Black, the good aliens spirited the energy source away, or so they said. Now the bad aliens, represented by Lara Flynn Boyle's tentacled space queen, are tromping around New York, interrogating and killing fellow aliens so they can figure out where the energy source is being kept. K, who's spent the past few years working at a small-town Massachusetts post office, must come out of retirement to save the world again, with help from J and a beautiful pizza parlor employee (the heartstoppingly lovely and woefully underused Rosario Dawson) who witnessed one of the murders. (J is sweet on her, so he decides not to erase her memory?a romantic touch that Sonnenfeld barely bothers to explore because he's too interested in Dr. Strangelove-style sets and super-glossy creature effects.)

An array of first-rank character actors and stunt-cast celebrities wanders through the action?Rip Torn, Tony Shalhoub, Jackass frontman Johnny Knoxville, Michael Jackson, Martha Stewart. All are wasted, either because they've been given little to do or because they've been given recurring bits that aren't nearly as hilarious as Sonnenfeld seems to think. (Knoxville plays a peevish monster with two squabbling heads?an idea that was done with more panache, and a lot less special effects know-how, in 1975's Monty Python and the Holy Grail.) There are a few funny moments involving a talking-dog agent and a gang of playboy worms (refugees from MIB I), but they soon become grating and dull because the director seems to think their very existence is amazing enough to keep us enthralled. (They aren't characters; they're toys.) Sonnenfeld's films are blessedly short (his saving grace) but at about 80 minutes, this one seems padded; add in trailers, commercials and a mildly amusing computer-animated short called The ChubbChubbs, you're basically paying 10 cents a minute for air conditioning. That, plus a melancholy feeling you can't quite place and can't easily shake.

I saw Men In Black II very late on the night of July 4, right after watching the fireworks on the Brooklyn promenade with family and friends. It was a beautiful and in some ways depressing experience?the fireworks, I mean. The promenade used to provide the city's closest, most spectacular view of Lower Manhattan, with the World Trade Center looming dead-center. I couldn't help thinking about Sept. 11 as I watched the movie afterward, not just because the Twin Tower's absence was fresh in my mind, but also because I'd remembered reading news reports last fall revealing that the finale of Men In Black II occurred on and around the World Trade Center. The film's final stretch was re-edited, of course?the climax still occurs on what appears to be the roof of one of the towers, with a high-angle view of the Statue of Liberty that could only have come from a building that no longer exists.

But the filmmakers could not re-edit the cluelessly complacent mindset that created the sequel and its predecessor, with its cavalier, America-the-triumphant view of government power, and its conservative, retro-50s heartland notions of good aliens (they love America) and bad aliens (they hate us). (One of the killings is described by an agency exec as an "alien-on-alien" crime.) What I love about Jones' performance is its suggestion that K is a decent man, shouldering a burden of real-world knowledge he'd never dare share with anyone else, including his goodhearted young partner?an awful awareness of how rotten the universe can be, and how much energy is required to care about it. The Men In Black films suggest that nothing happening within its color-packed rectangular frame really matters, so we shouldn't get too worked up about it. Jones' performance suggests the opposite. His K cares more for humanity than he'd ever dare show; the ultimate irony of the Men In Black franchise is that it revolves around a character who repudiates everything the franchise stands for.

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