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The New Black 

The same old jokes just shouldn't be as funny the second time around, but obviously someone forgot to tell that to Barry Sonnenfeld and company. The sequel to the 1997 box office barn burner Men in Black is fresher and funnier -- although even more familiar -- than ever. Sure, the filmmakers allowed five years to pass before foisting alien foibles on us once again, but the only logical explanation is that, along with Tommy Lee Jones' character, we all got collectively neuralized at the end of the first movie. What else could it be?

In many ways, Men in Black II is the exact same movie that owned Fourth of July box offices back in 1997. It's almost as if the gags were simply too good to not go around again, as if Sonnenfeld was just getting warmed up. This flick still gets all of its juice from the sly idea that there are aliens in disguise all around us and that we frequently and unknowingly interact both with them and the intergalactic space cops that police them, also known as the Men in Black. Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith and Rip Torn obviously relish the opportunity to reprise their roles as the alphabetically named Kay, Jay and Zed, respectively. Newcomer Rosario Dawson steps in for Linda Fiorentino as the beautiful earthling who -- to put it metaphorically -- goes from pizzeria employee of the month to pawn in a twisted game of Twister with those chain-smoking, coffee-drinking worm guys from the MIB office, affectionately known as Sleeble, Gleeble, Neeble, Gordy and Mannix. And it goes without saying that Frank the Pug is back, but can someone please explain why a talking dog is this funny?

MIB II continues the tradition of nasty things falling to earth, this time a meteoric Medusaic man-eater (think Audrey II meets Bob the Angry Flower, although Sonnenfeld likens her to "a combination of an artichoke and a jellyfish"), who quickly assumes the guise of an underwear model. All of which makes perfect sense, of course, played as it is with an easy evil by Lara Flynn Boyle. Like any great comic book villainess, this Medusa has a fittingly vile name (Serleena) and some of the best -- and ickiest -- computer-generated effects around. Never mind what she's after; it's glossed over just enough to prove confusing should you try to actually stop and think about it while the movie's in progress. She's here, she's bad, she will employ a veritable army of randomly imagined alien creatures, she must be stopped. That's everything you need to know.

She isn't, after all, really the point. The point is to reunite that oddest of onscreen couples, Kay and Jay. Since we last saw him, Jay has been protecting the planet, neuralizing partner after unsatisfactory partner (including the tantalizingly underused Patrick Warburton, Sonnenfeld's former Tick compatriot), and chafing at the secrecy his profession requires. He's gotten good and he'll be the first to tell you that before he politely asks you to look into the flashing blue light, but Serleena's arrival means the MIB need Kay. Kay is now Kevin Brown, a small-town Massachusetts postmaster good-naturedly haranguing the people of Truro on appropriate packaging materials. Jay rescues him and reintroduces him to MIB, allowing Smith and Jones to re-create the successful chemistry experiment that was MIB. And that, to the audience's deep satisfaction, still works like a charm. The movie's slow start is more than forgiven once these two are back, side by side.

Sonnenfeld's visual wit is as acute as ever. His facility with digitized effects hasn't dimmed much, either. In fact, this former Coen Brothers cinematographer and Addams Family director continues to be a deeply and delightfully disturbed individual. The best and funniest parts of MIB II continue to subvert Earth's egocentric view of the universal food chain; just ask the people of C-18. (To say any more would be to ruin a perfect piece of comedy.) While a little short on story development, the script penned by Robert Gordon and Barry Fanaro is chock full of hilarious toss-offs and asides, perfect for the manic maneuverings of Will Smith. And the former Fresh Prince puts his money where his mouth is, selling each stunt (and there are quite a few) with the physical prowess of a Jim Carrey in training.

Much like its predecessor, MIB II is the best of both worlds, a near-perfect marriage of computer effects and human interaction. Where Spider-Man and Scooby Doo were both enjoyable summer flicks with a variety of fine-tuning difficulties (Spider-Man almost there but not quite and Scooby Doo nowhere near there but still funny enough to watch), MIB II engages on all levels, thanks to the most ensemble of casts and the strength of Sonnenfeld's sarcastic, offbeat vision. Black is back and better than ever.

click to enlarge Letter perfect: MIB agents Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) and Jay (Will Smith) reunite to battle aliens and save mother Earth in Men in Black II.
  • Letter perfect: MIB agents Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) and Jay (Will Smith) reunite to battle aliens and save mother Earth in Men in Black II.


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