Dir: Barry Sonnenfeld. US. 2002. 82 mins.

The invigorating burst of zany energy that made sci-fi comedy Men In Black the surprise smash of the 1997 summer season was never going to be easy to reproduce. So it's hardly surprising that Men In Black II feels more slight and less refreshing than its smartly entertaining predecessor. What the sequel lacks in originality, however, it largely makes up for in self-confidence, a breezy sense of its own comic possibilities that carries it comfortably through a sub-90 minute running time. The result is a decent sized portion of popcorn fun that appears to warrant distributor Sony's high expectations for its second tent pole release (after Spider-Man) of the 2002 summer season. Released domestically, like its predecessor, over the Fourth of July holiday weekend, the sequel may not be able to match the original's five-day take of $84m but it will still produce some impressive initial numbers. After that, it should enjoy a sustained welcome in both the US and the international marketplace, though again, beating the original's monster grosses - $250m in the US and $337m internationally - seems like a tall order.

Re-assembling stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, director Barry Sonnenfeld and other on- and off-screen talents from the first film has taken Sony and producers Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald most of the past five years. With the key names in place (at the cost of what are reportedly some very rich back-end deals), the film does an efficient job providing fresh angles on the familiar alien-busting scenario while preserving the talent chemistry.

The script, by Robert Gordon (Galaxy Quest) and Barry Fanaro (Kingpin), at first focuses on Smith's Agent Jay, now the world-weary senior operative of the Men in Black, the secret government organisation that polices extra-terrestrial activity on planet Earth. After ditching the latest in a series of would-be new partners, Jay uncovers an Earth-threatening plot masterminded by Serleena (Flynn Boyle), an evil shape-shifting alien who arrives in New York disguised as a sexy lingerie model. The only man who knows the secret of Serleena's mission is Jay's original partner Kay (Jones), the former MIB top gun who was 'neuralized' and retired from the job at the end of the first movie.

Jay's effort to re-enlist Kay - now living a quiet life running a rural post office staffed by masquerading aliens - to the Men in Black ranks provides the film with one of its funniest set pieces. But the throwaway (even by the film's own cheeky admission) plot is the least of Men In Black II's assets. Most of the laughs come from the witty Sonnenfeldian tone, the familiar characterisations and the incidental bits of comedy business that ensue once Jay and Kay are re-united and back in action working to protect the unsuspecting human race from the aliens in its midst.

Smith's star has, of course, risen spectacularly since the first film was made and after more dramatic excursions in The Legend Of Bagger Vance and Ali it is comforting to find that his slick comic charm works as well as ever. With Jay in the film's driving seat, Jones is slightly less prominent this time round but his nicely deadpan performance still contributes a lot to the overall feel. Other returning characters include MIB chief Zed (Torn) and oily alien Jeebs (Shalhoub). Among the new performers, Flynn Boyle does a good job as the ruthless Serleena, Johnny Knoxville (creator and star of MTV reality series Jackass) plays Serleena's two-headed sidekick Scrad/Charlie and Rosario Dawson (Sidewalks Of New York) fills the skimpy role of Jay's love interest Laura.

Sonnenfeld's dry wit and assured comic timing provide the glue that holds the performances together. While the cinematographer-turned-director's touch seemed to be off in Wild Wild West and Big Trouble, here he clearly relishes the opportunity to find new comic material in the familiar MIB set up. Though the film's hold on its audience lags significantly from time to time it's never long before another off-the-wall gag arrives to re-ignite interest. The enjoyably unexpected touches include cameos by Michael Jackson and Martha Stewart, good-natured jokes at the expense of fellow directors Steven Spielberg and Oliver Stone and a closing moment that ends the film on an enjoyably surreal note.

Being a summer sequel, the film naturally also boasts more and better special effects (and, at a reported $130m-$150m, a much bigger budget). Creature creator Rick Baker and Industrial Light & Magic visual effects supervisor John Andrew Berton Jr are back from the first film and they supply Sonnenfeld with a slew of improved and new alien characters. Armed with more advanced effects technology than the original, the sequel gives some of its extra-terrestrials significantly expanded roles. The wisecracking 'Worm Guys' who appeared briefly in the original are on hand throughout the sequel and even get their own bachelor pad apartment. Frank the talking Pug dog (voiced by Tim Blaney), meanwhile, gets an expanded role as Jay's second sidekick and manages to steal most of his scenes from the film's human performers.

Prod cos Columbia Pictures, Amblin Entertainment, MacDonald/Parkes Productions.
Dist Columbia Pictures (US), Columbia TriStar Film Distributors International (intl)
Prods Walter F Parkes, Laurie MacDonald.
Exec prod Steven Spielberg.
Scr Robert Gordon, Barry Fanaro.
DoP: Greg Gardiner.
Prod des Bo Welch.
Eds Steven Weisberg, Richard Pearson.
Music Danny Elfman.
Main cast Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Lara Flynn Boyle, Johnny Knoxville, Rosario Dawson, Tony Shalhoub, Rip Torn.