Men In Black II review

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It had to happen one day. So may we present, for your disapproval, the logical result of focus group filmmaking. Just picture the scene: a select group of target demographics sitting round a table while a trained interrogator wheedles out their personal preferences about the first Men In Black flick. ""Liked soggy-headed alien Jeebs, you say? Good, good. The talking dog? Right, gotcha. Wide shots of the flashy MIB headquarters showing lots of weird and wonderful extraterrestrials? Excellent. Now please fill out these multiple choice cards before you leave."" Then it's simply a matter of running the cards through the Script-O-Tron 5000 and picking up the phone to the money men. Except something went wrong. The formula was followed, the recipe replicated. Why then, are we left with a cinematic outing that resembles Ghostbusters II rather than Toy Story 2?

Several reasons. The original took megabucks at the multiplex in 1997 mainly because it felt original - here was a comedic spin on all those conspiracy theories and government cover-ups. It launched itself at us from out of left field. Sure, there was hype, but no one expected the movie to be quite so entertaining. Or short, sharp and funny. And the X-factor in this X-Files spoofing delight? Two great performances from the leads. Blending Smith's wisecracking livewire act with Jones' dead-on deadpan, MIB found a balance which made both men funnier.

This time out, that vital spark is missing. Yes, the puns andthe interaction are present and correct. And, yes, there are laughs to be had. But everything feels just that bit forced, as if the stars are a pair of animatronic act-bots in the theme park version of the film.

For starters, the plot is just a retread of the original, tasking intergalactic policemen Jay (Smith) and Kay (Jones) with finding world-threatening MacGuffin the Light Of Zartha before Lara Flynn Boyle's Medusa-like alien bod can lay her twiney, angry-plant tentacles on it. Scene after scene feels like we've seen it before: the opening features a rogue alien beastie; an agent fouls up and has his memory wiped (neurolized); a race against time `propels' the action; a powerful shapeshifting villain tests the MIB's mettle. Jay's retrieval of Kay from his mundane duties in a post office, where the first movie left his ex-agent, simply offers an excuse to show us someone gosh-wowing at unusual sights. Been there, filmed that.

An honourable exception is Frank The Pug, MIB's chucklesome talking dog. He ably steals all of his expanded screentime, ready with a wry quip or a digitally manipulated grin. It's this mutt that saves MIB II from being a dog, growling out one-liners as he comes to the rescue of his two-legged co-stars (Lassie would be proud).

There are also one or two other joys to be had, notably a sequence in which our heroes escape from their conquered base and a particularly guffaw-wrenching storage locker gag.

It's these glimpses of the original's magic that make the disappointments all the more, well, disappointing. Johnny Knoxville, star of MTV's Jackass, fails to make two heads look better than one in a brainless, under-written henchman role, while Boyle's Serleena is an unmemorable villain. It's not the actress' fault - all she's been asked to do is look sexy in underwear while the digital effects go to work, and she does it very well - but you can't help wishing she'd been required to act a little. Especially as the effects in question are nowhere near as groundbreaking as those in the first movie. Still, at least make-up maestro Rick Baker supplies plenty of visual invention, showcasing all manner of strange mugs.

Hype alone and love of the first outing will draw the crowds and, despite the flaws, punters can at least be safe in the knowledge that this is no Batman&Robin, Speed 2 or Planet Of The Apes. In fact, as cookie-cutter, moolah-motivated second spins go, it's perfectly watchable. But we beg you - if you're ever asked to take part in a movie focus group, remember this simple mantra: "Different can be good. Originality is not your enemy." Maybe, just maybe, the men in suits will get the message next time.

A near carbon copy of the '97 sleeper smash, but lacking much of the wit, invention or sparkle. Still better than 50 per cent of the blockbusters from the last three years.

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