Men in Black (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Have you ever seen a tabloid headline like this: "Woman gives birth to son of six-headed alien"? Men in Black, the new science fiction comedy from cinematographer-turned-director Barry Sonnenfeld (Get Shorty), postulates that such stories are not the result of fertile imaginations, but accurate representations of the truth. You see, ever since the 1960s, Earth has become an intergalactic hideout for aliens in need of a place to lie low for a while. Currently, there are over 1500 visitors, most in New York City (based on personal experience, that number may be low), and their ranks include such high-profile names as Sylvester Stallone (he obviously had trouble mastering the language), Newt Gengrich (guess what he looks like in his natural form), and Dennis Rodman (who knew?).

Men in Black is Will Smith's second consecutive motion picture close encounter of the third kind. Here, instead of engaging in ship-to-ship dogfights with creatures ripped off from Alien, he's using Series 4 De-atomizers to blast giant cockroaches. As Jay, he's the latest recruit of the ultra-secret sixth division of the INS (the "Men in Black" of the title) -- a group of government workers in charge of licensing and regulating the presence of non-Earthborn aliens. His partner, Kay (Tommy Lee Jones), is a venerable agent who knows the ropes and is willing to give lessons. Together, the pair go in search of an intergalactic assassin (played in human form by Vincent D'Onofrio) whose unauthorized activities on Earth could result in the planet's destruction.

In many ways, Men in Black is the movie that Mars Attacks! wanted to be, but wasn't. This is a snappy, clever, often-funny motion picture that provides the perfect blend of science fiction-style action with comic dialogue. The screenplay, credited to Ed Solomon (and based on the Marvel comic book by Lowell Cunningham) has a sly, sophisticated edge that many blockbuster scripts lack. Sonnenfeld's direction is crisp and the editing is tight, resulting in a film that clocks in at a mere ninety-five minutes, which proves to be a nearly-perfect length.

That's not to say that the movie is of masterpiece status, or even light on flaws. There are plenty of minor problems along the way, and the ending is somewhat rushed and anticlimactic. On the whole, however, viewers are less likely to remember the glitches than the clever one-liners, subtle parodies, and effective use of visual effects to integrate aliens into everyday existence. Men in Black's deliciously unconventional spirit lends a refreshing twist to a premise that has fueled numerous conspiracy theory movies and one currently-popular television series.

The chief pleasure of Men in Black isn't being dazzled by the special effects, but enjoying the deadpan performances of Tommy Lee Jones (whose offhand attitude towards the most bizarre events would make Jack Webb proud) and Will Smith. This is a rare case when the multi-million dollar, computer-generated creatures don't upstage their real-life co-stars. Smith and Jones are a fine pair, and the film's focus on them never wavers. However, while the two leads can't complain about screen-time, the supporting players have all been short-changed. Linda Fiorentino, who gets third billing, is vastly underused, appearing only peripherally throughout. Vincent D'Onofrio (as the bad alien's human host) and Rip Torn (as Zed, the leader of the Men in Black) don't fare much better.

A word of caution for those who expect to see Independence Day 2: despite the attempts of certain marketing campaigns to link the two, they're vastly different in scope and intent. Men in Black is an outright comedy (in fact, some of its satire is directed at movies like last year's box office champ), not a pastiche of worn sci-fi/adventure elements, and there's no big space battle to be found. In fact, from the opening credits to the closing ones, our heroes stay firmly rooted on terra firma. Those accepting Men in Black for what it is will likely agree that this is one of 1997's more satisfying big-budget offerings.

Men in Black (United States, 1997)

Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 1997-07-02
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1