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Bet on Black

Like a Jawbreaker that changes color every few seconds that you suck it, MIIB: Men in Black II delivers a quick buzz, lots of stuff to look at, and a totally non-nutritious joy that can be attained only with the aid of artificial flavorings and yellow #5. In a nutshell, it's the perfect summer movie. Like its predecessor, the movie is short -- less than 90 minutes (indicating that director Barry Sonnenfeld is the only former commercial director making movies who remembers that brevity is the soul of wit) -- but it's filled to the brim with humor both verbal and visual. And unlike in some other summer movies we won't be unkind enough to mention, every digitally created gizmo serves a function. At the very least, each one is a sight gag of some sort.

Those looking for plot in their movies may be unsatisfied, as even Scooby-Doo has more narrative thrust than this, but high drama isn't really the point. Evil aliens are coming, and it's up to the MIB, with the aid of various good aliens, to blast 'em. As we start the movie, Agent J (Will Smith, finally acting grown-up) has taken over the role of former partner K (Tommy Lee Jones) as the no-guff workaholic head agent (Linda Fiorentino's Agent L is glibly written off in a throwaway line). When K recovers his memory and returns to action, as he inevitably must, J suddenly finds himself regressing subconsciously back to smart-talking sidekick. This may not be the deepest of characterizations, but for a summer blockbuster this short, it comes across as downright profound.

Virtually every character that was even vaguely popular the first time is back with even more screen time: the worm aliens from the coffee machine, Tony Shalhoub's pawnbroker with ever-regenerating heads, Frank the talking pug, and the MIB headquarters' unflappable doorman. It's a shame Vincent D'Onofrio doesn't return as the villain; in his place, we get Lara Flynn Boyle as Serleena, a swarm of serpents posing as an underwear model who's fun to look at but not for too long (Sonnenfeld, fortunately for us, knows this). MTV's Johnny Knoxville, as a moronic (of course) two-headed henchman, is more fun, and he even gets to give himself the kiss of life, which must have been a lifelong ambition.

For Sonnenfeld, MIIB is the solid comeback he's been looking for after the much-derided but visually clever Wild Wild West and the mildly amusing but visually uninteresting Big Trouble. For Smith, it feels like turning a page. Even though he does get an obligatory mediocre rap song to perform over the end credits, he seems to have finally dropped the Fresh Prince braggadocio that was swiftly getting old. Jones is of course an old hand, faltering only in a flashback sequence wherein he's called upon to play himself more than 20 years ago and does so simply by appearing in jet-black hair. They should have asked Josh Hartnett, who looks eerily like a young Jones, to cameo.

The jokes, courtesy of writers Robert Gordon (Galaxy Quest) and Barry Fanaro (Kingpin), veer from obvious riffs on oblivious New Yorkers to Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart to an ingenious scale-based sight gag and an otherworldly take on binging and purging by models. Something for everyone, basically, so if some of the humor seems too blatant, keep an eye out for that which isn't. The opening sequence, far too much fun to spoil here, should touch all bases and does so without the aid of any fancy CG effect. All that's missing is AC/DC's "Back in Black." But that can wait for the inevitable next installment.

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Luke Y. Thompson
Contact: Luke Y. Thompson

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