A FILM IN WHICH A GIANT SPACE WORM NAMED Jeff slithers through the bowels of the New York subway system while an extraterrestrial lingerie model named Serleena toilet-snakes her tongue through the dirtier bits of Rip Torn's brain, Men in Black II may not be the most sophisticated specimen of pop culture's propensity for absorbing the political realities of the moment, but, as a corollary to President Bush's recent colonoscopy, it isn't without a modicum of felicitous charms. That some critics might cite as the foremost of these the film's fleet 88-minute running time -- shorter in duration than the procedure that temporarily placed the reins of world power in the paws of Dick Cheney last Saturday morning -- probably isn't the sort of praise director Barry Sonnenfeld is hoping for. But then Sonnenfeld must be getting used to taking knocks from culture critics crueler than those who dish out movie reviews. Though the CGI-altered reflections in Spider-Man's eyes got bigger press, it was Sonnenfeld -- from a strictly Hollywood perspective -- who became ground zero last September, when the attacks back East obliterated both the release date of the director's other recent action comedy, Big Trouble, and the location of MIIB's climactic showpiece -- an alien way station situated inside the World Trade Center -- altogether.
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Of course, the real twin towers of Men in Black -- intergalactic INS agents J (Will Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones) -- survived the assault, and so has the comic synergy between them, a chemistry so sublime that the continuing success of the franchise requires little else. Not that MIIB's producers are content to trade on alchemical celebrity interaction alone. Stuffed into a plot about questionable recovered memories and more festooned with narrative space junk than three superimposed episodes of The X-Files (the better to DVD you with during the film's post-theatrical life), Smith and Jones sometimes have to paddle hard to keep their heads above the toilet water in which screenwriters Robert Gordon (Galaxy Quest) and Barry Fanaro (Kingpin) occasionally dunk them. But if the presence of Smith and Jones is indeed the tinker-proof ingredient of the Men in Black formula, little else seems to have survived the production unaltered. Gone, for example, is the sauciest ingredient of the original, Linda Fiorentino's hotcha morgue pathologist, replaced (hilariously) by a blubber-prone Patrick Warburton as Smith's temporary new partner, and, somewhere along the backstage way, Lara Flynn Boyle (specially equipped with an anti-gravity superbra) was swapped in for Famke Janssen, originally slated to play the serpent-fingered space minx Serleena.
"YOU HUMANS," SNEERED MEN IN BLACK'S SECRET star, a prune-faced toy pug named Frank who returns to steal the entire sequel with a mouthful of digitally realized black incisors and a dynamite rendition of "I Will Survive." "When are you going to learn that size doesn't matter? Just because something's important doesn't mean it isn't very, very small."
Both an explanation of his own star power and an assertion of MIIB's sight-gag emphasis on misapprehended scale -- as when an apparently enormous spaceship turns out to be the size of a tea-service samovar -- Frank's insight also proves crucial to comprehending the film's subtextual morass. For while the national tragedy that forced Sonnenfeld to rethink the location for MIIB's Independence Day climax (and results here in a New York City where every skyscraper is at once monolithic and anonymous) may seem exponentially more portentous than the studio logic that, at some moment of post-production panic, decided to bleach the name of Will Smith's new love interest (played by Hispanic actress Rosario Dawson) from "Rita" (as it appears in the original screenplay and on MIIB Web sites across the Internet) to "Laura," the ultimate effect is much the same. If few viewers will be likely to misconstrue the movie's acronym as "men too black," despite a couple of anxious and flat-footed jokes about racial profiling, who exactly would have been put out had Rita retained her more culturally specific name? In a movie where Michael Jackson turns up as the creepiest alien in the cast, some things, no matter how tiny, must have seemed to someone at Sony not quite pale enough.
MEN IN BLACK II | Directed by BARRY SONNENFELD Written by LOWELL CUNNINGHAM, ROBERT GORDON and BARRY FANARO | Released by Sony Pictures | Citywide