For a minute, Men In Black II looks like it’s going to do something new-ish. Agent J (Will Smith), jaded after five years with MIB — during which time he has endured a series of dullsville partners — is assigned to work with Agent F, a.k.a. Frank (charmingly gruff voice by Tim Blaney), the pug dog. While Frank is enthusiastic about the mission and the partnership (warbling “I Will Survive” out the car window, then barking along to the chorus of “Who Let the Dogs Out”), J remains mostly depressed, insisting that Frank shut up or “stay.”
Frank is a singular kick. But J’s dour demeanor places him — momentarily — in the position that K (Tommy Lee Jones) occupied in the original Men In Black. But you know this situation won’t last, that Smith won’t play straight man for too long. Which means that, while it’s terrific fun whenever Frank opens his little digitized mouth (accused of certain doglike behavior, he snaps, “That’s canine profiling, and I resent it!”), soon the regular buddy dynamic will be reinstated. And things get considerably less terrific.
J proceeds to locate and de-neuralyze K (Tommy Lee Jones), who, since giving up his memory and career in the last film, has been working at a Massachusetts post office; he’s also been abandoned by that much-beloved wife for whom he gave up so much (women!). In order to repeat the first film’s success, the filmmakers, including director Barry Sonnenfeld, have decided that close repetition of plot and characterization is imperative.
As for Frank, well, once the action heats up, the creepily charismatic little pooch is mostly consigned to the sidelines. Can’t be having no dog dominate a multi-million action-comedy-summer-blockbuster, not no-how.
From the moment K is recovered (just after J has a little beatbox language exchange with alien Biz Markie), MIBII increasingly resorts to formula, just about all plot elements come back: J and K argue; J gets to run a couple of non-threatening “black man” jokes; a pretty girl sort-of-but-not-really comes between them; they seek and battle a giant-buggish alien, who simultaneously seeks some crucial, cosmos-changing item. The girl is Laura (Rosario Dawson), a pizza joint employee; the alien is a nasty, black-tentacly alien named Serleena (played in human form by Lara Flynn Boyle); and the crucial item is something called the Light of Zartha).
Serleena arrives on earth looking like her real self (small, powerful, part-plant-part-insectish), then takes a Victoria’s Secret model’s form that she happens upon in a magazine. Soon after, she takes as her punky-goon-henchman a sublimely stupid two-headed alien named Scrad, a.k.a. Charlie, played by Jackass‘s Johnny Knoxville (in fact, his ILM-effected second head is not very convincing, lacking dimension and color).
That these characters are both functions of crass popular culture — Serleena learns quickly that flashing her breasts makes men delirious, Scrad is most definitely a jackass — underlines the way that the MIB movies negotiate pop culture and media, as means to human self-understanding and -inflation. One of the 1997 original’s more successful gags was the moment when J learned that certain weirdo-celebs (and his third grade teacher) were really aliens — folks like Al Roker, George Lucas, Isaac Mizrahi, Newt Gingrich. While aliens are creators of art, politics, and culture, humans are consumers, and moreover, they like it like that. The MIB’s mission, as J learned way back when, is to preserve human routine and ignorance, so people can believe they’re alone in the universe and so, in control of their “happy lives,” as K sardonically observes.
To attain this end, the MIB stipulates anonymity and conformity, that whole “the last suit you’ll ever wear” business. The very popularity of the first film — in which J and K are essential sequel elements rather than anonymous and expendable — complicates the concept, but hardly eradicates it. One of some 21 sequels coming to theaters in 2002, MIBII makes it a point not to mess with viewer expectations. Instead, it invites you to luxuriate in the familiar, to enjoy what you’ve enjoyed before. In addition to the return of J, K, and Frank, the film includes re-appearances by MIB Chief Zed (Rip Torn), pawnbroker Jeebs (Tony Shaloub), and Mr. Show‘s David Cross (despite the fact that his morgue attendant geek was slimed in the first film; here he plays a video store geek).
Repetition rules. As Will Smith’s soundtrack single, “Black Suits Comin’ (Nod Ya Head),” puts it, rather succinctly, “The Men In Black is back to protect the world. / When the enemy is near, the elite is here, / So have no fear, just let me see you / Nod ya head! The Black Suits Comin’.” The MIB — movie franchise and secret organization — depends on commodification, homogenization, and commercial overkill — see, for instance, the current film’s tie-in with Burger King’s “back porch grillers,” seemingly connected to J and K, though it’s unclear just how.
What the sequel does make abundantly clear is that the apparently accidental harmonies of the first can — indeed must — be turned into calculation. MIBII comes equipped with the aforementioned tie-ins, the first film’s popularity, and perhaps most importantly, its association with Smith’s well-known lock on the July 4 box office. And as of this writing, it appears that MIBII will maintain that lock. According to Reuters, the film grossed $36 million in its first 2 days, and looks like it will finish out its opening weekend with $80 to $90 million worth of business. (So far, Independence Day tops the all-time 5-day July 4 weekend earners’ list, with $85 million, and MIB comes in second, with $79.3 million.)
However you feel about Smith — he’s a perpetual good sport, a self-involved movie star, a profit-making machine, talented comedian, or upstanding “role model” — he has been doing his part to promote this package: film, cd, and self. And of all the non-threatening-to-white-folks rappers, he’s extended his reign the longest (anybody remember Coolio?) For this go-round, he’s appeared on Tonight, Today (a couple of times, first as the family-friendly rapper supreme, born to reign, then as the movie star), Bravo’s Actors’ Studio, on MTV variously, on BET’s Testimony, etc., etc.
The sequel, for all its investment in digital effects and the efforts made to include Jones and Sonnenfeld — is about Smith more than anyone else. And to all appearances, he knows this, and works hard on his image, doing interview after interview, repeating all his good-guy lines. If heads tend to look on his claims to hiphop cred as somewhat dubious (Fresh Prince had his moment, and it was a while back), he continues to make records that sell decently, spout off against crass bling-blingers (even as he brags about the trucks it takes to bring his money home), and makes room for family, whether bringing Jazzy Jeff along for occasional appearances or including Jada and the kids in the mix. Nod ya head. The man understands — and accommodates — the process of commodification, homogenization, and commercial overkill better than most. And it’s true, he does make it look good.