In Men in Black II, the suits and ties are back, the sunglasses are back, the toothy sponge-ball aliens are back, and Messrs. Smith and Jones are back, saving the world without cracking so much as a facial expression. (They’re too cool to be cool.) Yet more important than any of that, the neuralizer is back. You remember the neuralizer, don’t you? That’s the silver-wand doohickey that gets whipped out by our heroes each time they finish questioning some poor-shnook earthling. Held up like a camera, it emits a flash that zaps away all memory of secret operations, spaghetti-limbed beasties camouflaged as human, or the men garbed like old MCA talent agents who chase them.
Getting neuralized, as the movie makes clear, isn’t an unpleasant experience, but it’s not necessarily a lightning bolt of pleasure, either; if anything, it tends to leave a person in a zombie daze. At one point, the film’s director, Barry Sonnenfeld (a man who never met a rib cage he couldn’t nudge), shows up in a cameo and gets neuralized, and no less than Tommy Lee Jones is reintroduced to us as a small-town Cape Cod postmaster whose entire memory of being a champion alienbuster has been wiped away. (He then goes through the film’s cartoon-lite version of a ”Memento”/”Bourne Identity” crisis.) Audiences who see ”Men in Black II” will know the feeling well, since the movie itself acts as a kind of blockbuster neuralizer. It keeps flashing things in your face, and some of them are amusing to see, but a moment or two later it’s as if the sensation of being entertained had been erased as fleetly as it arrived.
Some motion pictures portray ultimate passion; others create ultimate thrills. ”Men in Black II” achieves ultimate insignificance — it’s the sci-fi comedy spectacle as Whiffle-Ball epic. To call it a popcorn movie seems almost an insult to the salty, caloric butter rush of great popcorn. Once again, we get too-deadpan-for-the-room buddy repartee + product placement + attitude + rubbery extraterrestrial F/X + corporate hip-hop cred over the closing credits. Like the first ”Men in Black,” only more so, what unspools here is something close to a new definition of a Hollywood movie, less a story or even an adrenaline ride than a rambunctious, self-referential fantasy bauble at once overblown and weightless — a couple of hours (or, in this case, just 88 minutes) of Stuff to Watch.
The Stuff to Watch doesn’t let up in ”Men in Black II”; it’s like the cantina scene in ”Star Wars” stretched over an entire movie. Here are extraterrestrials with tentacles dripping off their chins, with bodies that twist and wind like funky gelatinous furniture. Here’s Johnny Knoxville, of MTV’s ”Jackass,” screwing up his face as a dumb-rube alien with a Mini-Me second head. Here’s the Men in Black’s honorary third partner (think of it as the Joe Pesci role), a gleaming-eyed pug who talks like a Brooklyn butcher and then sings a rendition of — get ready to laugh, ladies and germs! — ”Who Let the Dogs Out.” Here’s a shag-carpet ’60s bachelor pad full of stick-thin partyers who look like a rat pack of praying mantises designed by Giacometti. Here’s Lara Flynn Boyle, her pinchy features highlighted by ruby lips and bloodless skin, sneering with bored nonchalance as a creature who takes the form of a Victoria’s Secret model and shoots Medusa snakes out of her fingers. Here are Smith and Jones (I mean, Jay and Kay), hoisting those giant silver guns that look like they’re made out of the plastic chrome from classic-car scale models.
In ”Men in Black II,” the world is at stake, and nothing is at stake. Is it any wonder that the two stars look like they’re just going through the motions? Smith, as always, is quick-spirited and fun, but Jones has to act a little too lost; he lacks the hipster authority he had the first time. Like just about any pop sequel, ”Men in Black II” rarely summons the surprise of its predecessor, but in this case that’s a major diminishment, since the discovery of the wacky-pack rules of the ”Men in Black” universe was crucial to the original film’s appeal. The otherworldly-spectacle jokes are still there, but not the goosey comic zest. This time, Jay has been given a love interest, a waitress (Rosario Dawson) he’s too smitten with to neuralize, and we’re supposed to get swept up in the matter of Kay regaining his undercover derring-do.
But since the characters were never much more than the sum of their wardrobes and blasé wisecracks, it’s a little awkward to see the movie organize itself around our lingering affection for them. Five years is a long time between ”Men in Black” movies; there has been more than enough Stuff to Watch in between. Of course, the Stuff to Watch aesthetic is nothing if not addictive, for filmmakers and viewers alike, but it does carry a risk: For audiences, at least, it’s all too easy to get overstuffed.