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They're back and in black again

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In its own accidental, absurd, and strictly for-profit way, Men in Black II provides something of a service for the movie audiences of today, suggesting some perhaps unsuspected truths and a continuing metaphor for its time and place.

Following the amazing success of the first film (it was the biggest hit of 1997), the second wisely changes very little, maintaining pretty much the same ridiculous premise, dazzling special effects and stunts, deadpan delivery, and of course the same pair of stars, Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith. Its matter-of-fact acceptance of fantastic characters, extraordinary events, and an essentially impossible world probably derives from the Surrealists' presentation of dream landscapes and bizarre visions with an almost photographic exactitude: an odd combination of matter and manner for a summer blockbuster.

            The movie actually parodies all its brethren, the seasonal spectaculars that rock the multiplexes all through the warm nights, thundering with explosions, sparkling with pyrotechnics  and yawning with the emptiness of the same old story told in the same old way. It employs most of the same material as all the other blockbusters --- the chases, shootouts, stunts, and explosions --- but imbues them all with irony and humor.

            The deadly serious tone of the whole proceedings relieves the ridiculousness of its situations and keeps pushing the movie right to the brink of self parody. Brief sequences, scenes, and lines of dialogue mimic and mock familiar material from television shows and movies, ranging from Dragnet to the James Bond flicks to any work of Steven Spielberg, who though he served as executive producer, becomes a specific target of a Will Smith joke; others employ such recognizable figures playing themselves as Peter Graves, Michael Jackson, and Martha Stewart (remember her?).

            The picture confronts the usual ho-hum situation of the summer spectacular, the necessity of saving the world from total annihilation --- we've all been there before. Agent Jay (Will Smith) investigates what the professionals call an "alien-on-alien crime," the work of a beautiful woman named Serleena (Lara Flynn Boyle), a Kylothian who has journeyed to this planet to steal something called the Light of Zaruthra (it might be Zarathustra for that matter), a theft which will apparently lead to the destruction of the globe.

            To save the world, Jay must retrieve Agent Kay (Jones), whose memory has been erased with a device called a neuralizer, from his job at a Massachusetts post office, so the two of them resume their work for the secret agency known as the Men in Black. It surely is not giving anything away to mention that of course the two of them, after a number of encounters with a variety of aliens, do manage to defeat Serleena and save the world.

            The Agency itself supplies the context for a good deal of the satire and humor. A cross between the FBI and the INS, the Men in Black is a secret government organization that monitors and supervises extraterrestrial visitors and immigrants to Earth, checking passports and luggage, stamping documents, communicating in the various nonhuman languages with a variety of generally strange and hideous beings. In keeping with its resolutely neutral tone, the movie simply assumes the presence of aliens, most of them harmless, who go about their daily business just like the rest of us --- Agent Jay points out that most United States Post Office employees actually come from other planets.

            Aside from the stunts and fireworks, the movie's great visual appeal derives from its makeup, costuming, and visual effects. The puppeteers and animators create an enormous variety of creatures, both good guys and bad guys, without ever seeming to repeat themselves. Aside from the diligent workers in the post office, the Men in Black receive some assistance from their ugly talking pug, Frank, who has a line of patter like a bad Borscht Belt comic, a bunch of hedonistic layabouts called the Worm Guys --- they're fun to hang with, but unsurprisingly, lack backbone --- while a whole race of fuzzy little folks live in a locker in Grand Central Station and worship Agent Kay as their god.

            Some of the villains include Eye Guy, a two-headed fellow known as Scrad/Charlie, Flesh Balls (don't ask), and of course, Serleena herself, who assumes the face and body of a Victoria's Secret model but actually consists mostly of a complicated entanglement of horrible serpents.

            As for the human side of things, the two principals properly underplay their parts, taking even the most disgusting monsters entirely in stride and going about the business of saving the world in the most professional and businesslike manner. Their acknowledgment of the presence and power of aliens on Earth recalls an obscure John Carpenter flick, They're Here, which posits a malevolent extraterrestrial population as the source of the right-wing conspiracy to control America.

            In this picture, the aliens are metaphorically the aliens we all know, i.e., immigrants from another place who mostly contribute to society, but who also include some menace to the nation, and thus reflect something of the country's present ambivalence and indecision about the whole question of immigration.

            In addition to its comic action and dialogue, and its social commentary, moreover, Men in Black concludes with a surprising but somehow appropriate leap into cosmology, surely an unconventional ending for an action-adventure-fantasy-comedy: it may even shock a few fans otherwise delighted with the weapons, the wisecracks, and the sunglasses.

Men in Black II, starring Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Rip Torn, Lara Flynn Boyle, Johnny Knoxville, Rosario Dawson, Tony Shalhoub, Tee Patrick Warburton, Jack Kehler, David Cross, Tim Blaney; based on the Malibu comic by Lowell Cunningham; story by Robert Gordon; screenplay by Robert Gordon and Barry Fanero; directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. Cinemark Imax; Cinemark Tinseltown; Hoyts Greece Ridge; Loews Webster; Pittsford Plaza Cinema; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal Henrietta.

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