"Men in Black II" has sequel-itis something fierce. An ungainly, comedy-deficient, B-movie rush job (despite being five years in the making) it's burdened by phoned-in performances and a plot that goes largely unexplained despite almost non-stop expository dialogue.
Most of Agent Jay's lines sound as if they've been made up on the spot by indulged superstar Will Smith -- and as charming as the guy can be, an ad-libber he's not. Tommy Lee Jones's Agent Kay, whose memory was wiped at the end of the original "Men in Black" by the franchise's trademark gadget, the neuralizer, is back. But he's a bump on a log. Most of the time the actor looks as if he's just gotten off the phone with his agent after trying to get out of this humiliating, flimsy sequel.
Agent Kay has been rounded up from an oblivious life in a rural post office and de-neuralized because he's the only one who knows where to find "the Light of Zartha," an alien object hidden on Earth that serves no explored purpose other than as a plot device to introduce Lara Flynn Boyle as a morphing, tentacled space baddie. She vamps around in a push-up bra and panties, taking over MIB headquarters and releasing evil aliens from the MIB prison (including an obnoxious, two-headed idiot henchman played by Johnny Knoxville of MTV's "Jackass") to help her find the Light.
Meanwhile, Jay has turned into a workaholic grump who neuralizes every new partner he takes on because he thinks they can't handle the job. But he starts to lighten up when he falls in love with Rita (Rosario Dawson), a civilian who works in a SoHo pizza parlor but dresses like a runway model. Because the movie is so rushed (it's only 88 minutes), these two are making goo-goo eyes at each other within 10 seconds when Jay interviews her as a witness to an alien attack. He decides not to neuralize her, which, of course, comes in handy later.
To manufacture tension in the plot, a deadline is plucked out of thin air -- if the Light of Zartha isn't off Earth by midnight, it will destroy the planet. Why will it destroy the Earth? Why at midnight? Why on this particular day? Hey, don't kick the crutches out from under this script. It's limping along as best it can under the lazy direction of Barry Sonnenfeld, who has also returned from the original "MIB" with a lack of enthusiasm that seems to be contagious on this film.
Screenwriter Robert Gordon ("Galaxy Quest") is so desperate for jokes that he often builds entire scenes around a single punchline, which then falls pathetically flat. A lot of screen time is burned on a trite talking dog bit. The movie's only good chuckles come from guess-who's-an-alien celebrity cameos and gags you've already seen in the TV commercials. "Actually, it came with a black dude," Jay says of the inflatable Caucasian autopilot in his gadget-packed MIB Mercedes, "but he kept getting pulled over."
There are plenty of times Sonnenfeld thinks he's going to get a laugh and builds a pregnant pause into a scene. But at the public preview screening I attended, you could have heard a popcorn kernel hit the sticky theater floor in these moments. Other scenes play like the script got lost, and Smith and Jones are just winging it while Sonnenfeld points and shoots.
In fact, even with its huge studio budget (reportedly $97 million) and its feeble attempts at recapturing the original's sense of humor, "Men in Black II" still comes off as cheap, stiff and contrived as the Z-grade sci-fi flicks of the 1950s that used to be ruthlessly mocked on "Mystery Science Theater 3000."