Men in Black II

You’d think that with five years between movies, they could come up with a better script than what they got for “Men in Black II.” This plays like an episode of the “Men in Black” cartoon series (indeed, we understand it’s based on one), and not like the long-awaited reunion of our favorite undercover government agents. This is slight, forgettable stuff.

The problem with most sequels is that whatever the premise was in the first film, the novelty of it has worn off in the second. “Men in Black” had a clever concept and some memorable characters. Now, the concept and characters are old. We watch “Men in Black II” and think, “Yeah. So? What else can they do?” It’s not that it’s dull so much as that it’s familiar.

It is the present day, i.e., five years after Agent Jay (Will Smith) neuralyzed Agent Kay’s (Tommy Lee Jones) memory and sent him into the private sector. Jay has worked with a series of new partners — including the current one, a hotshot wannabe hero named Tee (Patrick Warburton) — in protecting mankind. Trouble is, mankind tends to be stupid and unappreciative. Jay is lonely.

More pressing matters, though: The world is about to end. Specifically, there’s something called the Light of Zanthar that was supposedly sent away from the Earth 24 years ago, but that the evil, serpentine Serleena (Lara Flynn Boyle) thinks is still here. Wherever it is, it will self-destruct in a day or so. Agent Zed (Rip Torn) says he put his best agent in charge of sending it off … but that agent is Kay, who now works in a post office and has no memory of his former life. Jay has to get him back, restore his neurons, and save the world.

And so on. Jay befriends a witness to an alien killing, Rita (Rosario Dawson), and wants desperately to have a relationship with her. But neither he, nor the movie, has time for sentimentality beyond the superficial level that comedies require of themselves in order to feel legitimate.

Smith and Jones are good and funny, the way we like them. There is not as much of the grumpy interplay that the first film had, but they are still appealing characters. Frank the dog talks a lot; about half of what he says is tolerable. And I’m always a fan of the deadpan Rip Torn, not to mention comedian David Cross, who plays an ultra-nerdy conspiracy theorist. Lara Flynn Boyle: Eh. I believe she is both scarier and funnier in real life.

The film works its way to a series of anti-climaxes, with nothing spectacular to buoy them up. Playful director Barry Sonnenfeld (who did the first one, too) tries his best, and Danny Elfman’s characteristically mischievous score helps. But the script, by Robert Gordon (“Galaxy Quest”) and Barry Fanaro (“Kingpin”), is so breezy and vaporous as to be beyond help. At 88 minutes, it is far shorter than most films of its genre, and it feels like it. There’s so little story and so little substance that you have wonder if maybe someone neuralyzed them before they were done making it.

C+ (1 hr., 28 min.; PG-13, a few mild profanities, some mildly suggestive humor, sci-fi violence.)