Agents of misfortune

Movie: Men in Black II

Our Rating: 2.50

Critics are supposed to disclose any potential conflicts of interest, so let me state for the record that I own a pair of official "Men in Black II" dress shoes by Rockport. The licensing affiliation held no sway in my purchase; I simply like the way the shoes look and fit. In fact, they may be the most comfortable pair I've ever owned.

So why does Will Smith look so uncomfortable in "Men in Black II," in which he wears identical footwear? Perhaps he's harboring festering resentment that his attempted crossover into A-list drama "Ali" was only a moderate success, and he still has to pay the bills with movies like this extraneous, listless sequel to the mostly entertaining science-fiction comedy "Men in Black."

Smith sleepwalks through "MIIB," barely bothering to sell the brash-young-brother routine he's again been assigned. His obvious boredom is symptomatic of this mediocre follow-up, which comes off less like a full-fledged film and more like an expensive reel of possible framing footage for the "Men in Black: Alien Attack" ride at Universal Studios Florida.

At the movie's outset, the alien-hunting agent Jay (Smith) is suffering the malaise of his shadowy profession, which renders him a nonentity to the outside world. Similar feelings afflict Jay's new partner, a crybaby ex-Marine called Tee (Patrick Warburton, whose comic talents have now been wasted by director Barry Sonnenfeld in two consecutive features. The first was "Big Trouble"). Taking pity on Tee, Jay "neuralyzes" him, erasing his memory and putting him on a new life's path -- just as Jay did for his mentor, Kay (Tommy Lee Jones), at the end of the last movie.

Tee's removal is the opening act for Jay's predictable reunion with Kay, now a postal worker with no recollection of his former career. Hearing Jones bark out post-office rules with his trademark officiousness is one of the movie's most honest pleasures. But the actor is relegated to amnesiac spectatorship almost as soon as Jay shows up to enlist his old compadre in a new mission. Their job: to thwart the machinations of a serpentine alien named Serleena (Lara Flynn Boyle), who walks the Earth disguised as a Victoria's Secret model. Serleena is in pursuit of a powerful item known as "The Light of Zartha," but just what that is -- and where it can be found -- are secrets buried in the recesses of Kay's brain.

Serleena's one-dimensional villainy is typical of the disregard "MIIB" shows toward its new characters, but she still has more to do than Jay's utterly functional love interest, Laura (Rosario Dawson), who is denied even the simplest reaction to any of the wacky extraterrestrial antics. The script by Robert Gordon ("Galaxy Quest") and Barry Fanaro ("The Crew") sacrifices personality to threadbare punch lines and special effects as inconsistent as the ones in the first Men in Black. (A subway battle against a 600-foot worm looks particularly shoddy.) Whether verbal or visual, most of the few decent gags the sequel contains were already told twice in the original.

For all its alien extravagance, the first film got good mileage from the simple sight of a grown man interrogating a dog. The Pug in question, Frank, is back in "MIIB," now working for the Men in Black agency while still lifting his comedic leg all over bipedal authority. Yet even he eventually succumbs to the overall dearth of energy and creativity.

The tag line to "Men in Black II" reads, "Same planet. New scum." A better slogan might be, "Nice Shoes. Shame about the movie."

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