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BACK IN BLACK

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In the years since Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones last saved Planet Earth from destruction, the latter has been working in a rural post office, oblivious to his alien-policing past. The former, Men In Black's new star agent, has gone through a long string of partners; he grows disillusioned quickly, missing the chemistry he had with his old mentor, and zaps them with his mind-erasing neuralyzer when he's ready to return them to civilian life.

Moviegoers who were charmed by the first "MIB" may have a similar reaction to this installment, which lacks the zing of the original: zap it, send it back to Hollywood, and go watch the first one on DVD.

As with Smith's onscreen partners, it isn't that the film is outlandishly bad — it's just off. When most of the jokes in the first half hour rely on the novelty of a talking dog, it's clear something's missing; when that mutt sings along to "Who Let the Dogs Out" on the radio, the time has come to get a new joke.

In the first installment, bad guy Vincent D'Onofrio was able to walk the line between comedy and menace. Here we get Lara Flynn Boyle, who couldn't be funny if the fate of the universe depended on it. The two gags involving her — one in which she's grotesquely fat, and a running one involving (ahem) modified mammaries — both come at the expense of the notoriously stick-thin actress.

Her villainous sidekick, who has an extra head growing out of his back, is even duller — and strangely, just doesn't look right. You wouldn't expect a summer blockbuster like this to have lousy special effects, but that second head is only one of the film's tricks that look a few years behind the state of the art. Another is the movie's first action sequence, in which Smith rides atop a giant Dune-inspired worm.

 
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The men head out to save the galaxy from a sinister seductress.

There are a few other scenes, like one that has Agents J and K being flushed through an emergency evacuation system that's just like a giant toilet (blue cleansing fluid and all), where director Barry Sonnenfeld seems to be shooting for visual humor that doesn't fit the tone of the plot. Elsewhere — as with Flynn sticking a foot or so of tongue into Jones' ear, or with a world-inside-a-world gag that contradicts a similar joke in the first film — he just doesn't seem to care whether what's on screen makes sense to anyone, which isn't an attitude that was evident in the previous MIB.

Despite the feeling that everyone involved is going through the motions here, the two stars at least demonstrate some of the charisma that was so engaging a few summers ago. Once Jones' memory is rebooted, he plows through scenes like he's the only one who knows anything, and you wonder how much of his dry, condescending attitude is fictional.

Smith has toned down his own smart-alec persona slightly, and he gets the one really funny repeated joke of the film: Whenever he neuralyzes someone, he gives his freshly-hypnotized subjects a little advice on how they could turn their pathetic lives around.

Maybe the actor should take that angle with his director: "You're going to cash the check for this movie. Then, the next time you have a hit, you're going to avoid the temptation to milk a sequel out of it; you have plenty of money already. Now look into this light for me." Zap.

MEN IN BLACK II
"By the numbers and uninspired"
Dir. Barry Sonnenfeld; writ. Robert Gordon & Barry Fanaro; feat. Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Rip Torn, Lara Flynn Boyle, Tony Shalhoub, Rosario Dawson
(PG-13)

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