This Memorial Day marks the return of the blockbuster Men in Black franchise after a ten-year absence from theaters. Of course, when a new entry in a series comes along, it’s only natural to revisit the older ones. So, warning folks, potential spoilers below. If you haven’t seen the first movie, go watch it! If you haven’t seen the second one… good for you.
Men in Black is a film that manages to work so well despite the major obstacles in its way; it has to establish a universe, the central characters and tell a plot of its own all within a 97-minute run time. Yet, it all miraculously works. The MiB organization is introduced perfectly in the opening desert scene, with Agent K acting nonchalant as he finds the intergalactic alien amongst the illegal Mexican immigrants, interrogates him, kills him, calls in the clean up crew, and erases the memories of the witnesses. It’s all done so clinically without a second thought, which sets up the Men in Black organization perfectly and also sets up how jaded from normal society Agent K is. That jadedness ends up contrasting beautifully to the brash and more concerned Agent J, leading to hilarious set ups and exposition for the plot that’s actually entertaining to watch. A major part of this is that chemistry between the classic curmudgeon Tommy Lee Jones and the charmingly persistent Will Smith, who has a constant back and forth that’s tightly written by Ed Solomon. Add in a grotesquely hysterical villain in the form of a cockroach in human’s clothing (played with nausea inducing gusto by Vincent D’Onofrio), some stylish direction from Barry Sonnenfeld that contrasts the grit of New York to the slick cleanliness of the MiB offices & some unforgettable alien designs from effects/make up guru Rick Baker and you’ve got one of the more memorable blockbusters from the 1990s.
When I re-watched the first film, I found myself genuinely surprised by how well it has held up over the past fifteen years. The humor is still solid, the effects still look good, and the chemistry between Jones & Smith feels like a genuine partnership. So, I went into a revisit of the second film hoping it would hold up after a decade… it does not.
For the 2002 sequel Men In Black II, gone is the charm, the originality and the chemistry between K & J. Instead, there are constant retreads of fun jokes from the first film that are done to death. It’s sequelitis of the worst kind, almost as if a studio executive said, “Kids liked the dog, Tony Shalhoub, and the coffee alien guys! PUT MORE OF THAT IN HERE! THEY’LL LOVE IT!” I might be willing to forgive that crass commercial thinking if the new stuff wasn’t as bland as it is. The Laura Flynn Boyle villain is about as exciting as blank cardboard, the jokes fall flat before the cast has the chance to badly deliver them, and the effects manage to look worse than the film from five years earlier, mostly due to the overemphasis on dated CG & blue screen effects. Plus, the plot is so confounding in its boring nature. Could we really not explore something else in this universe beyond the standard Earth-based plot? This is a franchise involving multiple alien races, right? How about an intergalactic conflict that forces the MiB to travel off this damn rock of a planet instead of the same old “alien comes to Earth looking for some space maguffin” crap?!
Yet, despite all of those glaring flaws, nothing can compare to how much the J & K relationship got screwed over. Agent K’s return to his old life at the end of the first film was a perfect ending for his character, but this sequel had to contrive some terrible reasoning in order to get him and J together. But that mentor to rookie relationship from before doesn’t fit here. The beginning of this second film shows that J is a much more experienced and cynical agent; similar to how K was in the first film. There’s no need for K because J is no longer a rookie. However, this film pulls out yet another contrivance in order to get these two together, which forces J to lose all the character development he had in order to play the rookie again to K. Plus, when they are put together, the material just ends up failing so hard that Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith have no real way of salvaging this sinking ship. While the second film isn’t the worst Will Smith/Barry Sonnenfeld collaboration (it doesn’t quite equal the abomination that was 1999’s Wild Wild West), it’s a textbook example of how to take a fantastic franchise and kill it within one motion picture.
As of this writing, I haven’t seen the new film in the franchise, so I can’t comment on whether it slung more towards the first film’s well developed creativity or more closely resembles the dank hole of retreads that was the second film. It’s still such a shame that the MiB franchise has stayed so stagnant for so long. There’s so much potential with this idea that has been squandered. Hell, the animated series managed to do more exploration of this concept than the second film did. Then again, I don’t want this to turn into too much of a “Rafe’s Rant” on the subject of the sequel. I’ll just go into Men in Black III with a bit of optimism… even after hearing that god awful Pitbull tie in song. Bring Smith back to the mic, damn it!
Men in Black II