At one point in Men in Black II, Tommy Lee Jones pauses to squash a cockroach on the sidewalk, but finds himself hesitating. The memory his character willfully erased at the end of 1997's Men in Black is coming back to him, and he realizes something that in any other sci-fi picture would be treated as bad news: New York City is filled with aliens. Kay (that's his name, it turns out) looks around at the cosmopolitan idiosyncrasy of Manhattan, and suddenly it all makes sense: Half of these creatures are extraterrestrials in disguise. As if to confirm this, the cockroach graciously thanks Kay for not stepping on him, and crawls off.
This moment contains the multitude of charms in Men In Black II, not least of which is Tommy Lee Jones's face. Kay's look of comic resignation, of needing an aspirin the size of Mars, resembles a gorilla enduring children's taunts at the zoo, or an Easter Island statue whose feelings have been hurt. The premise of both Men in Black movies, adapted from Lowell Cunningham's pre-X-Files comic book, is that "aliens" are the latest immigrant wave to flood our teeming cultural capital, living among us in secret for no better reason than we just can't deal yet. (E.T. phone home and wire cash for visa.)
Jones's face registers the test of tolerance this situation might bring about--his Kay is something like an intergalactic INS officer who keeps the alien diaspora discretely out of sight and mind in the new New York. Yet he loves these sundry and slimy species, at least once he remembers them, and shows more patience with "alien affirmative action" than his partner, Jay, played by Will Smith. Jay has become the big man in black since the older veteran's retirement, and Smith seems to have brought with him into his 30s a new vocabulary of fatherly irritation. When Jay tells some oozing pile of CGI to put shoes on because "you're crapping up the floor," the actor sounds like a lightning-quick Bill Cosby.
Half of the laughs in all this stem from the contrasting attitude between deadpan heroes and a director, Barry Sonnenfeld, who never met a creepy-crawly he didn't like. (The disembodied hand that scuttles through The Addams Family might be his signature.) The other half stem from the tension between leads--practically the platonic ideals of buddy-movie yin-'em-if-you-can't-yang (a cracker sage versus a hip-hop turk, stoic grumpiness versus fragile cool, "This attitude of yours makes for a very stressful working environment" versus "Black, with a couple cubes of kiss my ass").
Where last time the artist formerly known as the Fresh Prince was (and played) the raw recruit, Smith now brings the king up to speed, which for some reason involves a cameo beatbox performance by rapper Biz Markie in the post office where Kay has been marooned for the past five years. (Like all Kay's coworkers, the Biz is an alien.)
The racial subtext of all this is as plain as the trombone erection in American Pie 2. And speaking of sequels, this one is a similar leap forward: a satire of American race relations so breezy that you'll want to forget it again and again, yet so pointed that it makes Spider-Man's valentine to New York seem almost subliminal. Sure, the good guys talk a tough game about jailing the "scum of the universe." And they once again defend the planet against the bad eggs welcomed by open immigration--specifically a crazy/ sexy/disgusting snake monster played by Lara Flynn Boyle. (It's one of the film's subtler jokes that Boyle, an icon to anorexics, eats everything in the movie.)
But Kay and Jay display exemplary community relations in their investigation of an "alien-on-alien" crime--a trail of clues that ends with an alien-human interracial love child and begins with an empty but recently used suit of human flesh. Jones may deliver the moral that you can't choose who you are, but in this movie, skin turns out to be nothing more substantial (or less sticky) than an easily shed layer of chewing-gum rubber.
The grace of Men In Black II is that this theme is assumed rather than emphasized. You might find it telling that a cockroach--the term of derogation favored by racists through the centuries--becomes an agent of Kay's raised consciousness. Then again, you might not: The movie is a product-placement-clogged summerfest that's over before you can get a popcorn refill. Still, the ballad of Kay and Jay is more than anything a tribute to the worlds hidden in the cracks of our own; its rose-colored magnifying glass recalls nothing so much as The Muppets Take Manhattan. This is the kind of flick where the most banging party takes place inside a Grand Central Station baggage locker--and you don't want to leave.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.