REVIEW: Men in Black [1997]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 98 minutes | Release Date: July 2nd, 1997 (USA)
Studio: Columbia Pictures / Sony Pictures Releasing
Director(s): Barry Sonnenfeld
Writer(s): Ed Solomon / Lowell Cunningham (Malibu comic)

“May I ask why you felt little Tiffany had to die?”

Fresh off the success of Get Shorty two years prior, director Barry Sonnenfeld‘s still young but effective career found it’s biggest hit in the rollicking science fiction comedy Men in Black. Unfortunately for him, the film also proved to be his last cinematic work worthy of note after a solid Hollywood journey beginning behind the lens for Rob Reiner, Penny Marshall, and the Coen Brothers. Broader in his comic sensibilities than that more subversive duo, his handling of Ed Solomon‘s script remains ageless in its laughs, impressive special effects, and the public’s bottomless desire to believe we aren’t alone. With a central conceit possessing infinite possibilities to mine for future adventures and a pair of memorable leads graced by natural chemistry and charisma, it’s unsurprising this out-of-this-world comedy has warranted a new entry fifteen years later.

Adapted from Lowell Cunningham‘s rather brutal comic series, you can’t blame the filmmakers for altering the covert, privately-funded squad’s penchant for killing those who’ve seen too much into a more under-the-radar group with alien technology that can erase memories by a pulse of light. These secretive men are tasked to keep Earth safe from the visitors they granted amnesty to decades ago—monsters in human suits blending in amongst a general public none the wiser. But every friendly race of miniature princes robotically controlling life-like bodies brings a villainous hoard hell-bent on death and destruction. These vile creatures are who our heroes in finely tailored suits and sunglasses devote their lives, preventing a constant barrage of invasion attempts more dangerous than the next as our intentional ignorance leaves them forever anonymous and unacknowledged.

Opened smartly by an active agent’s hunt for a hostile extraterrestrial, we’re introduced to the bureaucratic dynamic at play right away. While a force of INS officers roadblock an attempted border crossing from Mexico, the mysterious visage of grizzled ‘Kay’ (Tommy Lee Jones) exits an unmarked car to usurp control. Self-assured and intimidating without the need for credentials, he jokingly lets the illegal immigrants go after discovering one came from a land much, much farther away. The agency’s policy of extreme measure against the visitors is soon made while age is bluntly deemed a liability. Young blood is obviously necessary for the organization to keep its tenuous hold on peace intact, but the hunt for tenacious candidates able to keep their heads with a newfound knowledge of ‘cohabitation’ is not something one advertises in the papers.

So, it’s up to the cocky brashness of an NYPD over-achiever to get himself noticed after an extended foot chase with an extremely ‘spry’ criminal off bridges and through the Guggenheim. Put through the ringer psychologically and physically at MiB headquarters—in a hilarious sequence opposite the ‘best of the best’ military training could provide—his bucking of authority endears him to Kay and he’s offered the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sever all ties with the outside world and become its savior. Newly anointed ‘Jay’ (Will Smith), he enters the search to uncover why so many visitors are anxiously seeking ways out. Something risks annihilating mankind, forcing the boys to both scour the tabloids for abnormal reports and visit the unlucky medical examiner, (Linda Fiorentino‘s Laurel), employed at NYC’s ground zero for extraterrestrial deaths in order to discover what.

Made possible by the seamless integration of computer graphics and puppeteering, the universe Smith and Jones inhabit is a believably heightened reality. Interactions with the aliens are equal parts fun, tense, and scary depending on the species as some work in tandem with humanity and others hope to blend in or cause trouble. Comic relief comes in the form of talking pugs, golden slugs pouring coffee in the break room, and a healthy number of eccentrics like Tony Shalhoub‘s regenerating Jeebs. Each creature understands their place and either embraces it or looks to beat the system with their own brand of illegal activity between worlds—one where they exist and one where they don’t. So, while Jeebs hopes to avoid arrest from Jay for stolen Rolexes, he’s really worried about what Kay will do when he finds a cache of otherworldly weapons under the counter.

Conspiracy theories abound like the World’s Fair site in Queens housing the original spaceships; oddities in Sylvester Stallone and Dionne Warwick not being human; and microwaves, Velcro, and more proving to be alien technology. Nothing is too outlandish or gross for these agents and none are afraid of a little—or a lot—of slime finding its way on their person. It’s a blood-less adventure with blue goo and quippy baddies to engage a younger audience by its PG-13 rating instead of the source material’s gory massacres. Smith perfectly elicits laughs with his loudmouth’s attempts to hide insecurities and fear while Jones stoically looks upon every insane event as though he’s seen it all before. Their rapport is brilliant throughout and only enhanced by Rip Torn‘s humorless Zed at the helm watching everything with a stern glare.

The real entertainment, however, lies in Vincent D’Onofrio‘s Edgar. An unfortunate farmer who loves his truck more than the wife he incessantly berates—a subtly genius Siobhan Fallon—Edgar finds himself the unwitting host of an alien insect with superhuman strength. Tasked with portraying an unfamiliar creature inside skin too large for his physique, D’Onofrio traverses through jerky motions, guttural noises, and decomposing flesh with aplomb. Like a baby set lacking the dexterity of balance, he bumbles through the city on a search for a galaxy able to give his planet immeasurable power. A ‘bug’ leaving carnage in its wake, his destruction is matched only by Jay’s own penchant for firing without discretion. Caught in a battle that could easily deteriorate into unwanted absurdity, all involved understood the tone they’ve set forth and found a way to make it still feel fresh today.

[1] Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith in Men in Black – 1997
[2] Vincent D’Onofrio in Men in Black – 1997
[3] Linda Fiorentino in Men in Black – 1997

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