J Needs a Friend

Men in Black II

The original Men in Black is a beloved comedy classic. It was released at the height of Will Smith's multiplex dominance, a big release that proved Smith was the king of summer. Plus, it's legitimately funny, featuring Smith as likely his comedic best. It's a solid, rip-roaring adventure with good jokes, good action, and the stars of the film having a whole lot of fun in the process. It's seriously hard to hate this film.

It's sequel, Men in Black II, is nowhere near as well liked or beloved as the original. Released five years after the original, to much fanfare and anticipation, the film was a reasonable success, pulling in a respectable $441.8 Mil at the Box Office (although far short of the $5889.4 Mil from the first film five years earlier). While a success, something about the film didn't resonate with fans the same way. It was missing something, and that held the film back. So what happened?

Well, it's pretty obvious from the way the second film is structured, the creators wanted to walk back much of what happened in the first movie. The film sets up a threat that only Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) could solve, as only he had the knowledge to complete the case. Unfortunately K has his memory wiped at the end of the film, so the first whole act of the movie is setting up the danger and having Agent J (Smith) go around, feeling like something is missing. Then the film spends a lot of time getting Agent K (aka "Kevin") back into the fold, and getting his memories back. Only in the last act does the film find anything approaching the old zesty adventure of the original. That's a lot of time spent trying to get us back where we were all along.

And I get it. The chemistry between Jones's K and Smith's J is what drove that first movie. They both played straight man, bouncing off the other in so many different ways, and trying to find a new partner that could do the same thing for Smith's J would have been hard. But the whole point of that first movie was that K needed to retire. It was his time. For this second film to walk all that back, and (to blunt) to do it so artlessly, ruins the sweet ending of the original. This was an impulse that, I think, really should have been ignored. Finding a different partner for J should have been the story, not getting J the one he lost a while ago.

Having K so tightly tied up in the plot really doesn't do the film any favors. The threat this time around is from a weird, alien plant lady, Serleena (Lara Flynn Boyle), who can take human form and she's here, on Earth, in search of the Light of Zartha, some vague McGuffin that will do... something. Unlimited power or whatever. You know, just like that galaxy in the first film. But since this was a case K worked back in the day, J has to go get K out of retirement, restore his memory, and figure out where the Light of Zartha may be.

The issue is that the film never really justifies all of this. K is the only one that knows but, despite some vague character connection between K and the aliens that brought the Light to Earth (she was a princess and he, supposedly, loved her, although we never see any of this) the film barely conveys any of that in a meaningful way. Just like it doesn't manage to sell us on the threat of Serleena; she's just a generic villain without any of the spark or menace of the bug from the first film. She's introduced, and then relegated off to the side so other hi-jinx could happen.

Hell, even Agent J's big story hardly gets any investment at all. Serleena goes to a pizza parlor looking for the Light (for... reasons), and while there she kills the parlor's owner. His one server, Laura Vasquez (Rosario Dawson), manages to avoid getting killed, and J almost immediately falls for her. Thankfully Dawson and Smith are able to convey this because, after this one scene they share, Laura disappears from the film for huge stretches of the runtime. A movie that explored J's loneliness (which we're told about but hardly ever shown) and had him fall for Laura organically, to build a real relationship there, could have been good. This movie, as with everything else in the film, tells us what we need to know and then rushes the rest.

Of course, then the Light is revealed to be Laura (spoilers for a 20 year old movie), it hardly feels like a twist at all. In part that's because (despite Dawson's best efforts) Laura hardly feels like a character. But that's also because the film really doesn't seem to care at all about its own plot line. It would rather spend time trying to reintroduce Agent K, having him go through some variation of Agent J's journey from the first film, just flipped around a little. And then, once K has his memory back, the film goes on to riff on the same dynamic they had before, with similar jokes and similar beats. It doesn't really have anything new or interesting to say, it just does the same kinds of things all over again.

Which sucks because this film is still legitimately funny in many places. I wouldn't call it as laugh out loud funny as the first film, but there are plenty of really good jokes and gags that don't rely on call-backs to the first film. There's some dark humor (wait for the scene with the video store guy and his girlfriend), some amusing riffs on MIB procedure (J paired up with Frank the Pug is actually pretty funny), and a few large set-pieces that actually play (like the opening section on the subway). There's enough here that it almost feels like the film could have been something different, something new and original... and it makes you wonder what happened.

Looking into the production it does seem like the film hit some snags during the scripting process. Original screenwriter Robert Gordon's script was rewritten by Barry Fanaro, and the script had more pop-culture references and other gags added in. Meanwhile, director Barry Sonnenfeld didn't want a love story in the movie (assuming that was why Wild Wild West failed, and not because that movie was a wretched piece of shit) and so had a lot of that scrubbed and removed. That does help to explain why the film feels so janky, like pieces are missing, replaced by recycled material that was already starting to feel old.

In the end this felt like a film that didn't really know what it wanted to be. The cast was game, and were still as funny as ever (hell, they're the reason I felt this movie was at all watchable). But at the same time it's hard to shake the vibe that this was a bit of a retread, one that was missing its soul. Not as funny, not as vibrant, and not as original as the first film, Men in Black II feels like an obligatory sequel, the kind of film the original movie was rebelling against.

Thankfully, after this, the creative team took a long break before creating 2012's Men in Black 3. And that was a film that redeemed all the decisions made in this adventure.