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Fading to Black

Scary aliens and shiny guns lose their luster in Men in Black II.



Will Smith wants to be everything to everybody while actually being nothing in particular. So far, he’s pulling it off. With his boundless multimedia aspirations and quaintly ’90s-style ruthless ambition, Smith is his own product placement in every movie he makes. He has softer edges than a racquetball, yet he’s vaguely intelligent, slightly sexy, just a tad heroic—and nothing you remember a moment you leave one of his various entertainments. He’s the genial student body president of Hollywood High. Or as my friend Cybil puts it, he’s everybody’s favorite white rapper.

There’s a large dose of Big Willie Style in the recipe for Men in Black II, his latest trip to the money trough. It’s clever, funny, smashingly decorated and easily digested, just like MIB I. But whether due to time, circumstance or repetition, the spark of the first film just doesn’t shine as it did five years ago.

The original, also directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, built itself with grace and flair around a clever idea—aliens walk among us, but they’re kept in line by an anonymous police force with really sharp suits and sunglasses. Instead of striking out on its own, the sequel labors on the exact same ideas, confusing us until we remember why it’s really here: that beautiful modern cocktail of product placements and the all-but-certain box-office take.

Five years after Agents Jay (Will Smith) and Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) saved the world from Vincent D’Onofrio, Jay is still fighting the forces of alien evil, though he’s become a bit anal in his quest for human-alien equilibrium. Plus, Linda Fiorentino was one of many partners he has neuralized after deeming them unworthy to follow in the footsteps of Kay (“She wanted to go back to the morgue. I just helped her,” Jay sniffs). Kay, meanwhile, works as a postmaster in a small Massachusetts town, the memories of his glorious career in black neuralized away from his mind.

Trouble starts in the form of an alien shaped and dressed like a lingerie model (well, Lara Flynn Boyle, who would need to gain 15 pounds to actually need a bra). She’s looking for something called The Light, which will enable her to take over the universe or something. The plot barely stretches to cover the 88 minutes including tech credits, and the eye candy (more shiny guns, dozens more aliens, and Johnny Knoxville with an evil head craning its neck out of his backpack) is plentiful. If that’s all you need, MIB II is solid entertainment.

Sonnenfeld has had success with sequels before. Addams Family Values, his follow-up to the 1991 original, was 10 times better than the first film, packed with delicious multidirectional satire and the best performance Christina Ricci has ever given.

But despite the allegedly best efforts of everybody involved, saving the world seems much easier and less exciting this time around. What’s more, Jones could not coast more obviously if he did the entire movie on a Schwinn. Kay is supposed to be a monotone grunt, but Jones constantly seems to be one scene away from torpor. In a way, Men in Black II is a film built to capitalize on the spectacular air-conditioning systems of today’s modern movie house: it aims to relax and refresh you before turning you back out on the scorching Salt Lake streets.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with blockbusters that have no ambition to be anything but an hour-and-a-half corporate showcase combining celebrity charisma, special-effects magic and a bunch of gee-whiz gizmos. That’s become the formula for many blockbusters these days, and blockbusters are generally competent entertainment these days. But that doesn’t make them good movies.