Men in Black
1997, PG-13, 98 min. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Linda Fiorentino, Vincent D'Onofrio, Rip Torn, Tony Shalhoub.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., July 4, 1997
Just in time for the 50th anniversary of the alleged Roswell alien crash comes this witty-but-slight comedy from Addams Family director Barry Sonnenfeld. In fact, Men in Black opens with titles that are strikingly similar to Sonnenfeld's earlier film, as well as a jaunty soundtrack by Danny Elfman and an appearance by Carel Struycken (Addams' Lurch) as an alien, making it briefly feel like some sort of weird Addams offshoot. It's not, though. Having survived a rumored 22 rewrites, Men in Black is its own critter, and as far as breezy, effects-laden summer fare, it's not half bad. Jones plays K, a longtime member of a super-secret, non-government-affiliated agency created to monitor here on earth the comings and goings of extraterrestrials – some friendly, some not. As part of this underground INS, Jones and his cohorts get to wear standard-issue black Armani suits and blacker Ray-Ban shades, making them look as though they wandered in off the set of Reservoir Dogs 2. After K recruits as his new partner young NYPD hotshot Will Smith (henceforth known simply as J), erasing his fingerprints along with his identity, the pair embarks on a mission to seek out and destroy an evil alien “bug” (sort of a giant, intergalactic cockroach) that's taken over the body of Edgar, an upstate bumpkin farmer. The bug is bent on destroying the members of another, slightly more diminutive alien race, and it's up to the Men in Black to stop him before intergalactic war – and the requisite destruction of the earth – occurs. That's all we have going on in Men in Black's mighty slim storyline, but it works, up to a point. Sonnenfeld has created a series of alien gags that work 90% of the time; strung together like washing on a backyard clothesline, the film hops from joke to joke, enormously fueled by the obvious comedic synergy between its two leads. The pairing of Jones and Smith is one of the better duos to come out of Hollywood in some time, with Smith's wide-eyed amazement at the new and strange sights he encounters as an MIB deftly ricocheting off of Jones' craggy-faced, been-there-done-that stoicism. D'Onofrio's Edgar is terrific as well; with a little help from Rick Baker's effects team, he plays the farmer-cum-insectoid alien as a lumbering, twitchy, one-man freak show, full of alien faux pas and an ill-fitting human skin. He's so disgusting you can't help but laugh, and then laugh again. As the sum total of its gags, Men in Black succeeds nicely, though if you take away the jokes, you're left with little more than a handful of none-too-startling creatures and some missing backstory. Comparisons with Ghostbusters have been making the rounds, but Sonnenfeld's film lacks the sheer joyful enthusiasm of that Ivan Reitman production. Like the inky void of space, there's really not much here, but what there is, is certainly entertaining.