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Aliens, Smith, And Jones

MAD DOLLARS, PANIC ATTACKS, AND JACKO'S STAR TRIP--HERE'S WHAT HAPPENED WHEN MEN IN BLACK'S TOMMY LEE JONES AND WILL SMITH SUITED UP FOR SUMMER'S CREATURE-CRAZED SEQUEL

One is a 55-year-old west Texas rancher whose former college roommate became Vice President Al Gore. The other is a 33-year-old West Philly rapper whose former partner...well, still is DJ Jazzy Jeff. But Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith have one thing in common: They crack each other up. The stars of Men in Black II answer the kickoff question of an interview with a series of head-scratching one-liners that send them both into giggle fits:

EW When Will used a ''neuralizer'' to erase Tommy's memory at the end of the first Men in Black, was that a setup for the sequel?

JONES I'm glad I didn't die! [Smith chuckles]

SMITH That would've been a tough one! [Jones laughs]

JONES We'd need a ''revitalizer''! [Smith guffaws]

SMITH A ''de-die-erizer''! [Jones explodes]

Guys, stop. You're killing us.

Thankfully, the humor in Men in Black II -- which reteams Smith's plucky Agent Jay with Jones' sour Agent Kay -- is a bit more accessible. And though the sequel features eye-popping aliens played by The Practice's Lara Flynn Boyle and Jackass' Johnny Knoxville, hundreds of special effects, and even a cameo by the King of Pop, it rides almost completely on the dynamic between its two identically garbed but otherwise mismatched ET-busters. ''To me, they're not only a comedy couple,'' says director Barry Sonnenfeld (also returning from the original), ''but they're strangely a romantic couple, too.''

The production calculus, however, wasn't nearly as effortless as the stars' chemistry. In March 2001, Sony's Columbia Pictures, then on a four-year downturn that included the pricey disappointments Godzilla, 8MM, and Random Hearts, announced MIBII's July 3, 2002, release date. But before the movie with more corporate tie-ins than any film in company history could hit theaters, Sonnenfeld would have to contend with an unfinished script, a looming actors' strike, and unwanted meddling by the studio and producers. They all had reason to be concerned: Variety has opined that at a cost of $140 million (not including massive marketing dollars), the 88-minute MIBII may be, per minute, the most expensive live-action movie ever made.

Sony's love affair with Smith and Jones heated up in 1997 over the Fourth of July weekend, when the original Men in Black grossed $84.1 million in its first five days. ''Anytime you have an $80 million-plus opening, you're talking about the sequel that Saturday,'' says Smith. But a second installment required not only a new plotline -- Jay must persuade the now-civilian Kay to don the MIB suit once again -- but also an updated payment plan. ''Neither Tommy, Will, nor myself had gross [participation]in the first movie,'' says Sonnenfeld, explaining that only Sony and executive producer Steven Spielberg received a piece of the nearly $600 million MIB earned worldwide. ''I couldn't imagine that they would be willing to give up enough to allow us to feel rewarded for the first movie.''

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