Men In Black III surprised nearly everybody when this recent May, nearly ten years after the franchise’s last film, it earned almost $70 million in its first weekend and garnered respectable reviews. But what about Men In Black II, which nearly killed the franchise in the first place? Here’s Raffi Nakashian with our newest re-view.
I’m not the most forgiving reviewer, I admit that. I tend to linger on the details or the plot holes in every movie I write about, even when it’s a film I actually enjoy. I really like Minority Report, I swear! That didn’t stop me from nitpicking it to death last month. Resident Evil is a bad film if you ask a critic or a zombie aficionado, but it’s so inexplicably watchable for some reason that I’ll settle on it after a channel surfing session when there’s nothing better on. As a matter of fact, all the movies I’ve reviewed on this blog made some kind of positive impression on me in some way. That’s why I chose to review them.
I feel like I owe all of those films a big apology after sitting down with this week’s mess. Men in Black 2 was just so utterly terrible. I hate it in a way that you could only hate something you used to love — because I loved the first Men in Black. It was fresh, fun, well-paced, funny, and smart for a big-budget summer flick.
Men in Black 2 took everything that worked in the original, copied it shamelessly and injected it with steroids, and ended up producing a movie that is so awkward, immature, and unfunny that it even managed to retroactively ruin the original. I left the theater feeling sad. I don’t think a “comedy” has ever made me feel that way before, or since.
I’m going to watch it again — hopefully for the last time ever. I’m watching it so you don’t have to.
Before revisiting Men in Black 2 for this review, I decided to watch the first Men in Black to remind myself what I liked so much about the original. This was the fun part of the project — it’s a movie I’ve seen many times, and one that I still enjoy. It’s a classic fish-out-of-water story, with aliens. A charismatic young badass (Smith) learns about a secret world that exists right under our noses. It shares that sort of infectious whimsy that you find in a film like Harry Potter — or on a darker level, The Matrix — where you can have fun playing along with the premise that this secret world can exist within our own reality, just beyond our notice. What if wizards are real, what if we’re all living in the Matrix, what if aliens live undercover in Manhattan, etc. It’s a fun idea and the movie executed it lightheartedly to a memorable Danny Elfman score (one of the few things that MiB2 had going for it). Half the fun of this type of movie is seeing the protagonist react to the bizarre new reality that’s unraveling around him as he leaves the world he used to know and becomes acquainted with his new one. While everyone else goes about their business as though it is utterly mundane, the main character can convey that sense of awe to you — and in his prime, Will Smith was the master of reacting to stuff. He always has a sharp witticism or a facial expression that is perfect for its moment. That’s a big part of what made Men in Black so fun.
Another thing that was great about the first film was its tone. Men in Black doesn’t take itself too seriously, and was thus free to play with physical and gross-out humor. It was fun seeing Will Smith get knocked back twenty feet in the air when he fired his tiny weapon, or when the squid baby grabbed him by its tentacles and knocked him around. What I didn’t realize until I saw the sequel is that that style of humor, while present and definitely quirky, was rare enough that it didn’t distract you from the movie. Most of the laughs came from Smith’s and Jones’ performances, not the over-the-top goofiness and CGI that its sequel depended so heavily on.
When they were penning the sequel, they must have thought that the success of the first film depended on the weird stuff, because it’s so damn prevalent and over-the-top that it’s distracting. I understand that Men in Black’s style was unique, but that wasn’t the only thing that made it entertaining. The result of this narrow, one-dimensional approach to writing the sequel is that Men In Black 2 is so full of silly, off-the-wall humor and computer-generated shenanigans that it feels different than the original. Its tone is silly and cartoony, when the original was just quirky. The difference in the language seems subtle, perhaps, but what it translates to on film is an anything-goes wackiness that makes the movie really hard to watch.
Before we’re even introduced to some kind of story, Will Smith jumps onto the back of a giant worm alien in the subway and flails around for about five minutes against an obviously green-screened background. That is immediately following a scene where Lara Flynn Boyle walks around with a naked, protruding belly just for the sake of a cheap laugh.
While the first movie felt smart, these kinds of gags make the sequel feel broad and tasteless; like I’m watching an R-rated movie for children. There’s a scene where Rip Torn jumps and remains suspended in mid-air for five seconds straight as he kicks Lara Flynn Boyle in the face repeatedly. How is he able to do that? I can’t tell you how badly that kind of thing bothers me in a movie. Most cartoons are less cartoony than this.
The tone and the style of humor do enough to ruin the experience for me, but the story itself is so lazily written with no regard or respect for the original that it actually tarnishes the first film. Let’s talk about that.
At the end of the first Men in Black, Agent K reveals to Agent J that he’d been training him as his replacement, not his partner. We saw at the beginning that when an agent retires, his entire memory from the beginning of his career is erased from his memory. As a nice parallel to the opening scene, where K erases his own partner’s memory, it had become K’s turn to retire. He’s too old for this shit, he says, roughly. We see a headline in the tabloids afterward that showed K had returned to civilian life, awoken from a “coma” and married to his young sweetheart. I couldn’t think of a nicer ending! Men in Black told a fun little story, wrapped it up cleanly and even put a nice little bow on it at the end for you.
Then Men in Black 2 came along, untied that bow, and used it as toilet paper. Rather than allowing the characters to move on naturally within the reality of the universe they themselves established and telling a whole new story, the creative decision was made that they wanted more of the same for Men in Black 2. The same characters, the same story, and the same jokes — except recycled to the point that they’re obnoxious.
First, they needed Tommy Lee Jones back. Never mind the whole subplot in the first movie about K silently pining for his love from afar, and finally leaving the agency to be with her in a wholly satisfying conclusion — they make the cruel decision to have her divorce him and emasculate his character by putting him in a goofy uniform and putting a bewildered expression on his face for half of the movie.
Why? Because they thought it would be funny. Just like they thought it would be funny to have the talking dog that was in two minutes of the first film become J’s partner, because, hey — people liked the talking dog. Let’s put him in a suit and have him sing “Who Let the Dogs Out?” This is dated, throwaway humor and it results in a dated, throwaway movie.
I should be moving on, but I can’t stress how much the decision to bring K back hurt this film. He decided to retire at the end of the first movie — it was his choice. It feels like the movie is making up new rules as it goes along just to be able to put him back in the suit. Suddenly, his wife doesn’t love him anymore. He hates his job. You can un-erase peoples’ memories, and only he knows the one thing that can save the world. Oh, and the morgue lady that ended up being J’s partner at the end of the first one? They make a passing reference to her wanting to “go back to the morgue.” Apparently, the Men in Black have a pretty lax revolving door policy. The word “contrived” is not strong enough to describe this chain of events that led to K’s return.
In the end, we get K back, and everything is as it once was, except that K is not cool anymore, and J is not the new guy anymore. They’re both kind of in an awkward, in-between state for the rest of the film. They introduce a new The Girl, though, so that’s different. I wish I didn’t have to call her that, because Rosario Dawson is awesome and beautiful and it would have been great if she had some kind of personality, but she really does nothing throughout the course of the film besides looking doe-eyed and being the object of Will Smith’s lust. Now, Morgue Lady from the first film? She had a lot of character. She was clever, didn’t take any crap, and she blows up the alien in the end. Rosario Dawson doesn’t do much of anything. She actually turns out to be The Thing in addition to just being The Girl — that is, the thing they’re all looking for that they need to save the world. So, given that she doesn’t have any personality and doesn’t do anything during the whole movie, she’s more of a thing than she is a person. They eject her from the planet against her will at the end like an object.
So we’ve got our cast of characters — let’s get to the plot of the film. The first Men in Black was about J and K trying to locate an item of immense power before the bad guy got his hands on it first to avoid the destruction of the Earth. For the plot of the second film, just re-read that last sentence. It’s almost comical how little is really different from the first movie, while somehow being so much worse. They even retread the same spots and recycle the same jokes — like when they visit Tony Shalhoub’s shop and shoot him in the head. Yes, it was very funny the first time. No, I’m not paying you ten dollars to see it again, and for you to stick a Burger King ad in the middle of the movie.
This bit reminds me of that 30 Rock gag where Pete accused Tracy Jordan of filming a whole movie without bothering to get out of his car — it’s like they filmed this scene in the middle of Lara Flynn Boyle’s lunch. I use the term “lunch” loosely, of course, since she’ll be regurgitating it in about ten minutes (Google it).
I’m sure I can complain about Men in Black 2 for a good deal more, but really, what’s the point? It’s like complaining about the mustard stains on a crack-whore’s wife-beater. The problem is not in the details. Yes, they recast David Cross as a completely different character (editor’s addendum: it was a western) — that would be distracting to me if I couldn’t get the image of the Ball-Chinian out of my head. Yes, that’s what they call him. I’d complain about Johnny Knoxville’s strange, pointless presence in the film if I could stop thinking about how Men in Black 2’s very existence absolutely ruins the satisfying conclusion to the first one. I want to neuralize the memory of this film from my head all together.