MEN IN BLACK II – Blu-ray review

I don’t get it.

“Men in Black II” had a bigger budget than the original 1997 film. Barry Sonnenfeld was onboard to direct again, and Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones signed on to repeat as agents L and K—two men in black whose job it was to monitor and deal with any alien problems on Earth.  Steven Spielberg even executive produced again.

So how could “MIB II” be so disappointing?

What I mean by that is, the story was hokier, the tone pushed more into the realm of silliness, the creatures looked more outrageous and somehow less believable, and more air time for an alien who takes on the form of a pug made it just another insipid talking dog movie. Meanwhile, a “dumb” factor negated whatever special effects were superior to the first film.

Act I was a strength of “Men in Black” as we watched Jones recruit Smith to partner with him. But Act I in the sequel is just plain uninteresting. We get a completely ineffective opening involving a fictionalized “reenactment” of an encounter between MIB agents and aliens—something about a Light of Zartha and the threat of renewed warfare between Zartha and the Klyothians. But the real problem is that we don’t even get to see Jones for a while, and the film sorely misses the chemistry and energy that the two men provided. Instead, we get a weepy agent played by Patrick Warburton, the latest in a succession of disappointing replacements for Jones.

If you’ll recall, “Men in Black” ended with Jones confessing that he’d been training Smith not as his partner, but as his replacement. He wanted to return to civilian life to look for the woman he once loved. “Men in Black II” picks up with K, now postmaster Kevin Brown in a small town somewhere, being sought out by J . . . but too deep into the film, if you ask me. By the time K is deneutralized and gets his memory back and his bearings, the damage has already been done.

The big difference between the first film and this sequel is the concept and the writing, which puts the onus squarely on screenwriters Robert Gordon and Barry Fanaro, who replaced Ed Solomon. Gordon had previously written the script for “GalaxyQuest,” which is great fun, while Fanaro had written the comedy “Kingpin.”  You’d think this team could have come up with something better. But the jokes just aren’t as funny this time around, the situations aren’t as interesting, and the characters . . . well, some of them are just plain annoying, like the alien with the vestigial head coming out of his back. It looks dumb, and it plays dumb. And where there was no gross-out humor in the first film, here we get things like a “Ballchinian,” an alien with testicles hanging from his chin.

The clever lines that were standard issue in the first film are in far too short supply this time around, and you notice it especially when one of them finally surfaces: as when J shows K a new agency vehicle that comes with a temporary driver who pulls the car up when you need it, then is sucked into the steering column. “Is that standard?” K asks. “Actually, it came with a black dude, but he kept gettin’ stopped.”

Last time it was K who went for someone. This time it’s J, who takes such a shine to an alien event witness (Rosario Dawson) that he refuses to use the neutralizer on her to erase her memory. To do that would be to erase the sparks that seemed to fly between them. What she saw was a “thing” with snakes coming out of it kill her boss—a boss she had no idea was an alien. The “thing” is the villain this time around, and I have to say that it’s just not as fun as the zombie farmer we got in “Men in Black.” Serleena (Lara Flynn Boyle) may have those Medusa-like snake things coming out of her fingers, her, well, everywhere, but what she doesn’t have is the kind of charisma that makes for a truly fearsome yet fascinating antagonist.

Dean Winkelspecht liked “Men in Black II” more than I did, calling it only “slightly disappointing.” He gave it a 7 out of 10. I think it falls into the black hole somewhere between a 5 and a 6. Though the film is listed at only 88 minutes, it started to feel long in spots. And that’s never a good sign.

As with “Men in Black,” aside from a tiny amount of noise on a few scenes, the video looks superb. Grain is kept to a minimum, black levels are deep, colors are bright but not oversaturated, and the level of detail in every scene is terrific. “Men in Black II” comes to a 50GB disc via an AVC/MPEG-4 transfer and I saw no evidence of artifacts.  Every special effect and visual effect is made more vivid with the HD treatment. “Men in Black II” is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio.

Sony went with an English, French, or Portuguese Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround on the first film, but opted for a more standard English DTS-HD MA 5.1 for the sequel. The bass has more rumble to it, and the sound is more dynamic. Dialogue is clean and crisp, and the audio is nicely mixed for the home theater. Additional options are in French, Portuguese, and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH, French, Portuguese and Spanish.

Both the “Men in Black” and “Men in Black II” Blu-rays come with an MIB PS3 game demo, $10 “MIB III” movie ticket offer, and a UltraViolet copy of the film that expires in 2014. “Men in Black II” is also BD-Live enabled.

On-disc features include another Sonnenfeld commentary track, with the director taking a mostly technical, businesslike approach to how things were shot. After that, there are just a handful of featurettes and minor bonus features. The longest, “Cosmic Symphonies: Elfman in Space” (13 min.) is a pretty standard look at the composer and his musical take on the MIB films. Then “Rick Baker: Alien Maker” (11 min.) talks about the look of the aliens this time around (he’s much more enthusiastic about them than I am), “Design in Motion: The Look of MIB II” (10 min.) charts the development of the production design, “MIBII: ADR” (9 min.) offers a look at the looping process, “Squish, Splat, Sploosh: The Steller Sounds of MIB II” (8 min.) looks at the sound effects, and “Barry Sonnenfeld’s Intergalactic Guide to Comedy” (6 min.) is basically a round-up of cast and crew talking about the director’s sense of humor. They’re all pretty standard.

Other than those, there’s an alternate ending (2 min.), blooper reel (5 min.), eight “creature features” (the longest of which runs five minutes), a “Serleena Animated Sequence” that shows an early computer-generated version of a sequence, a “Black Suits Comin’ (Nod Ya Head)” music video by Smith, and “Multi-Angle Scene Deconstructions” in which viewers can toggle around to view different layers of CGI work from five extremely short scenes (the longest of which is 3 min.).

Bottom line:
Spielberg and Sonnenfeld surely recognized that the problem this time was in the story and writing, because they engaged a new team of writers to tackle the challenge of bringing new life into the franchise with “Men in Black III”:  David Koepp (“Spider-Man,” “Angels & Demons”), Etan Coen (“Tropic Thunder”), Jeff Nathanson (“Tower Heist”), and Michael Soccio (“The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”).  “Men in Black III” opens in theaters May 25. If it’s a hit, it might help the second installment, because people may want the complete series. It could use the help. “Men in Black II” never matched the first film’s perfect blend of action, comedy, and sci-fi elements.