Men In Black II

Written by Matt Zoller Seitz on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

Tommy Lee Jones
has one of the great faces in movies. As Men In Black II’s
Agent K–a retired secret agent who leaves his job as a post office manager
to track immigrant space aliens and bust the ones that are up to no good–his
sandblasted mug and vertically creased cheekbones testify to experiences most
civilized people could only imagine. His refusal to move that face even under
the most extreme and even horrifying circumstances bespeaks a tremendous professional
discipline, and a deep grasp of how opaque a man must be in order to thrive
within bureaucracy.

Up close, K
appears to have been drawn by Chuck Jones; he’s Bugs Bunny to Will Smith’s
Daffy Duck. When all hell breaks loose–when a giant worm tears through
a building roof right behind him, or a tentacled space demon wraps him up in
a perverted caricature of a lovers’ embrace–Jones’ eyes show
no fear, only mental math. He constructs K as a man/machine who’s constantly
thinking about his next move–even if (especially if) you don’t see
him thinking.

Would it surprise
you to learn that director Barry Sonnenfeld and his writers don’t even
begin to understand or appreciate how great Jones is in this part? Would it
surprise you to learn that the filmmakers keep Jones offscreen for nearly a
third of the movie, and that the movie only becomes tolerable the first time
we see him in closeup, and hear that great Texas drone, reeling off instructions
on the proper way to wrap a parcel? Would it surprise you to learn that Men
In Black II
has no heart and no soul, only an affably whorish kind of professionalism?

Of course it
wouldn’t, because you’ve seen too many of these sorts of films to
expect anything resembling emotion or even mild involvement. The first Men
In Black
got startlingly positive reviews; its wide-angle deadpan slapstick,
60s-style pop-art sets and superficially clever commentary on immigration and
racism were just fresh enough to obscure the fact that it was basically Ghostbusters
all over again (only this time, the black guy wasn’t an afterthought).
It probably helped that MIB I came out in the late 90s, after several
years of The X Files, a spate of conspiracy and alien films and the
real-life, ready-for-the-Internet nightmares of Oklahoma City, Waco and
World Trade Center I. Men In Black’s light tone gently tweaked the
rancid tabloid paranoia that had seeped into the American mainstream; its vision
of principled, gadget-toting, alien-busting secret agents reassured viewers
that our government had things under control. It was, in many ways, the perfect
summer movie–just clever enough to be mistaken for smart, just hip enough
to be mistaken for relevant, just funny enough to be mistaken for hilarious
and chock-full of very expensive creatures and action setpieces, all deployed
with a light touch that told viewers, "Don’t worry, we’re not
taking this stuff seriously, either."

The sequel
offers more of the same plot elements, and the same "Don’t worry,
be happy" attitude. Smith’s character, Agent J, a newbie in the original,
is now a more world-weary, embittered man–more like K, who retired and
had to have his memory wiped clean with a neuralyzer to prevent him from revealing
agency secrets. The agency is still a cosmic combination of the Immigration
and Naturalization Service and the Central Intelligence Agency, charged with
monitoring the space creatures that live among us. There’s a plot, amusingly
described in a cheeseball, In Search Of-type tv show narrated by Peter
Graves: 25 years ago, some bad aliens tracked some good aliens to Earth to capture
the good aliens’ all-powerful energy source; with help from Agent K and
the Men In Black, the good aliens spirited the energy source away, or so they
said. Now the bad aliens, represented by Lara Flynn Boyle’s tentacled space
queen, are tromping around New York, interrogating and killing fellow aliens
so they can figure out where the energy source is being kept. K, who’s
spent the past few years working at a small-town Massachusetts post office,
must come out of retirement to save the world again, with help from J and a
beautiful pizza parlor employee (the heartstoppingly lovely and woefully underused
Rosario Dawson) who witnessed one of the murders. (J is sweet on her, so he
decides not to erase her memory–a romantic touch that Sonnenfeld barely
bothers to explore because he’s too interested in Dr. Strangelove-style
sets and super-glossy creature effects.)

An array of
first-rank character actors and stunt-cast celebrities wanders through the action–Rip
Torn, Tony Shalhoub, Jackass frontman Johnny Knoxville, Michael Jackson,
Martha Stewart. All are wasted, either because they’ve been given little
to do or because they’ve been given recurring bits that aren’t nearly
as hilarious as Sonnenfeld seems to think. (Knoxville plays a peevish monster
with two squabbling heads–an idea that was done with more panache, and
a lot less special effects know-how, in 1975’s Monty Python and the
Holy Grail
.) There are a few funny moments involving a talking-dog agent
and a gang of playboy worms (refugees from MIB I), but they soon become
grating and dull because the director seems to think their very existence is
amazing enough to keep us enthralled. (They aren’t characters; they’re
toys.) Sonnenfeld’s films are blessedly short (his saving grace) but at
about 80 minutes, this one seems padded; add in trailers, commercials and a
mildly amusing computer-animated short called The ChubbChubbs, you’re
basically paying 10 cents a minute for air conditioning. That, plus a melancholy
feeling you can’t quite place and can’t easily shake.

I saw Men
In Black II
very late on the night of July 4, right after watching the fireworks
on the Brooklyn promenade with family and friends. It was a beautiful and in
some ways depressing experience–the fireworks, I mean. The promenade used
to provide the city’s closest, most spectacular view of Lower Manhattan,
with the World Trade Center looming dead-center. I couldn’t help thinking
about Sept. 11 as I watched the movie afterward, not just because the Twin Tower’s
absence was fresh in my mind, but also because I’d remembered reading news
reports last fall revealing that the finale of Men In Black II occurred
on and around the World Trade Center. The film’s final stretch was re-edited,
of course–the climax still occurs on what appears to be the roof of one
of the towers, with a high-angle view of the Statue of Liberty that could only
have come from a building that no longer exists.

But the filmmakers
could not re-edit the cluelessly complacent mindset that created the sequel
and its predecessor, with its cavalier, America-the-triumphant view of government
power, and its conservative, retro-50s heartland notions of good aliens (they
love America) and bad aliens (they hate us). (One of the killings is described
by an agency exec as an "alien-on-alien" crime.) What I love about
Jones’ performance is its suggestion that K is a decent man, shouldering
a burden of real-world knowledge he’d never dare share with anyone else,
including his goodhearted young partner–an awful awareness of how rotten
the universe can be, and how much energy is required to care about it. The Men
In Black
films suggest that nothing happening within its color-packed rectangular
frame really matters, so we shouldn’t get too worked up about it. Jones’
performance suggests the opposite. His K cares more for humanity than he’d
ever dare show; the ultimate irony of the Men In Black franchise is that
it revolves around a character who repudiates everything the franchise stands