Reviews - Men in Black II

Review by the Groovy Yak

With February of 1998 came a big shock for Danny Elfman fans: he received his first ever Oscar nomination for his score to 1997’s Men in Black. (Another one for Good Will Hunting as well). While Men in Black isn’t his most Oscar-worthy score, it was nice to see the man finally get the recognition he deserved. Today, five years later, his score holds up pretty well. I’ve come to appreciate Men in Black more with each listening and viewing of the film (which I love as much as the score). Although I view Mission: Impossible as the point of departure into the “modern Elfman sound,” I think one could view Men in Black’s popularity and recognition as an impetus for the change.
So, five years later we get the sequel. As a film score fan, I love sequels, but only when the composer of the original comes back to rework his/her material. I love hearing new modifications to the main theme, the new themes, and how they interplay with the old ones. I like revisiting the soundworld of the original. A great sequel score does all this. Elfman fans are spoiled with the homerun he hit with Batman Returns in 1992. Of course, the film has to give the composer room to do all of this. Batman Returns did. Men in Black II, sadly, doesn’t.
Oh, but the Men in Black theme does return this time- and in full force! Danny also made some great new modifications to his baby. The MIB bass line is back, unchanged, but the melody that goes with it is jazzed-up rhythmically. I liked the old version, but for the sequel the new version is great. He also stapled on a few extra notes at the end and reharmonized sections. I love the MIB theme v 2.0. Danny really relies on the theme this time around. It was used sparringly in the original. Now it seems present in almost every cue. His K/”Star gazing” theme is largely absent- until one key moment in the film. I’m glad it returned (it’s one of the best moments in the score), but I would’ve loved to have heard it a few more times.
There’s also a new love theme for the sequel. It’s simple, effective, and appears about twice, thanks to the brisk and manic pace of the film. And that really is my main gripe with this score- Elfman is given nothing to do! In the original, Elfman supplied cues like “D’s Memories,” “Petit Mort”, and “Finale” that were charged with emotion and gave the comedy some heart. MIIB has no heart and nothing good for Elfman to score. There’s only one cue where he gets to break-out a bit and that’s in “The Light” at the end of the film. “The Real Story” and “Heart Thumps” (the other appearance on the love theme besides “The Light”) contain a little emotion too, but nothing like what we heard in the original. In MIB, Elfman had fun playing with Vincent D’Onofrio’s Edgar with lots of Herrmannesque heavy low brass as he flailed around NYC, trying to find the Galaxy. Lara Flynn Boyle’s Serleena in MIIB is so bland and 2-dimensional, Elfman can’t do much other than play off her inherent sexiness (which he does in the opening with some female voices). We even get shortchanged a bit with the finale of MIIB. MIB had a great 3 minute build-up from the K theme to a huge choral finale (one of my favorite Elfman cues of all time). In MIIB we get an 18-second choral outburst that doesn’t do much for me… Sigh.
Fortunately, there’s still plenty of good to find in the score. MIIB is not boring or tired by any means. Instead of sounding like his penultimate score (Spider-Man), MIIB shares more similarities with the 1997 original. It’s refreshing to hear a composer return back to the soundworld he created five years ago. (Especially since Elfman’s sound seems to evolve every year). Many MIB-specific elements whether they be certain sounds, orchestrations, devices, or even small chunks of the original score, appear throughout MIIB. In fact, I think one could make a compilation of cues from both films and one would have trouble discerning which cue was from which film. (Of course us die-hard geeks wouldn’t have a problem.) MIIB is entertaining as well. I thoroughly enjoy “J Nabbed/K’s Back,” “The Defense Begins,” and both titles- especially the “revisited” titles. And as previously mentioned, “The Light” is the highlight- the selling point of the score. Or would that be the Worm Lounges? Yes, one thing MIIB has that its predecessor didn’t was Worm Lounge music. Like the Martian Lounge music in Mars Attacks!, except maybe even weirder, the Worm lounges contain lots of bongos, vibes, organ, and weird vocals. (The first one has an awesome flute solo, the second one an awesome sax solo). As many have remarked, they’re more “Austin Powers” than MIB, and definitely a surprising new turn for Elfman. I’m not all that surprised, though. I’ve trained myself to expect the unexpected with each new Elfman score I buy.
Is MIIB worth it? Yeah, it’s a fun 45-minute ride. (53 minutes if you count Frank the Pug’s “I Will Survive” and the new Will Smith “song”). Spider-man casts a huge shadow over this one, for me at least. I can’t fault Elfman, though. I think he gave this score his best shot, although the film offered him nothing to do. I think in the future, if I want to hear Men In Black, I’ll pop in my copy of the 1997 score, and then listen to MIIB if I’m hungry for more.
Rating: * * ½

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