Men in Black (1997)

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Linda Fiorentino, Rip Torn, Vincent D’Onofrio. Columbia.

Decent Films Ratings

Overall
Recommendability
?B+
Artistic/
Entertainment Value
?
Moral/Spiritual
Value (+4/-4)
? +0
Age
Appropriateness
?Teens & Up

External Ratings

MPAA ?PG-13 USCCB ?A-III

Content advisory: Semi-comic fantasy violence with (mostly alien) gore; icky creature effects; some sexual innuendo, profanity and crass language.

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Men in Black

By Steven D. Greydanus

Somewhere in the middle of Barry Sonnenfeld’s witty sci‑fi satire Men in Black, as Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith sit in a customized Ford catching their breath after an incident I will only describe as extremely bizarre, Mr. Jones turns to Mr. Smith and says thoughtfully, "Did anything about that seem unusual to you?"

Welcome to the goofily inverted world of Men in Black, a movie that taps into the same cultural myths and paranoid conspiracy theories as "The X-Files," but for the sake of satirical comedy rather than spine-tingling thrills. In the world of Men in Black, the wackiest conspiracy theories are true and the skeptics are in denial; aliens walk among us while the mysterious government "men in black" of any number of alleged UFO sightings keep tabs on them and save the world from time to time; and the breathless headlines of supermarket tabloids ("An alien stole my husband’s skin!") represent "the best investigative journalism on the planet." When Mr. Smith (or "J") expresses doubts about this last point, Mr. Jones ("K") shrugs: "You can read the Times if you want to. Sometimes they get lucky."

Based on the whimsical comic book series of the same name, Men in Black looks superficially like another Independence Day-style big-budget summer special-effects extravaganza with a catchy three-letter acronym. Yet MIB is smarter, leaner, funnier, and more human than most entries in the genre, relying less on spectacle than on the chemistry of the two leads and the wit of the script for its appeal.

It also has the benefit of a striking villain: Vincent D’Onofrio (who’s since appeared in The Cell and The Salton Sea) brings an entertaining physicality to the role of a murdered farmer named Edgar whose body is awkwardly inhabited by a vicious buglike alien. Aided by the makeup effects wizardry of Rick Baker (2001’s Planet of the Apes), D’Onofrio staggers and jerks through the film looking for all the world like a giant insect wearing an "Edgar suit." Not only is his performance a more entertaining special effect than the CGI monsters and alien puppets of other movies, it also exploits what could be called the "Jaws principle" (i.e., the monster you don’t see is more effective than the monster you do see).

MIB outdoes the later Rush Hour movies in its clever use of those tried and true formulas, Fish Out of Water and Odd-Couple Partners. The Fish Out of Water is Will Smith, a streetwise, competent New York cop who stumbles into a larger world when he runs down an ordinary-looking punk who turns out to be able to run up sheer walls. Tommy Lee Jones is his Odd-Couple Partner, an unflappably businesslike Man in Black who knows how tough it is to run down a cephalopoid on foot, and thinks this NY cop may have the right stuff for their line of work.

Most odd-couple partnerships rely on pairing a sensible "straight man" with an offbeat "color character" (e.g., Danny Glover and Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon; Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker in Rush Hour). Somehow, MIB juices the formula in such a way that both roles apply to both characters: "Jay" and "Kay" are both the straight man, and they’re both the color character.

As the fantasy-world "insider," Jones gets the most outrageous lines; yet he delivers them with such a total lack of irony ("No, ma’am, we at the FBI do not have a sense of humor that we’re aware of") that he sells us on his identity as a suited government functionary. Smith, meanwhile, doesn’t have to be outrageous or profane to be funny; he’s the ordinary guy in an extraordinary situation, yet his hipness and flamboyant style ("You know what the difference is between you and me? I make this look good") stand out among the unsmiling black-suited ranks.

Linda Fiorentino (still best known as the femme fatale from The Last Seduction) plays a morgue worker and gets some funny scenes with Smith, while Rip Torn embodies the stereotype of the heroes’ gruff boss. Tony Shaloub (Galaxy Quest) also gets laughs in his cameo appearance, though a special effect is that scene’s big attraction.

MIB turns its satirical sights on alien conspiracy theories and real-world targets in roughly equal measure. The movie begins by asking: Suppose there really was a government office dedicated to tracking and dealing with alien visitors to our planet; what branch of government would they be a part of? The military? The intelligence community? No, this movie reveals that the Men in Black are actually a secret division of — INS, Immigration and Naturalization Services. (Of course!) Then there are lines like Kay’s defense of his own claim that the 1964 World’s Fair was actually staged to camouflage a pair of flying saucers by incorporating them into the famous Pavilion towers. "The World’s Fair was a cover-up?" Jay presses. Kay’s unanswerable response: "Why else would we hold it in Queens?"

In a couple of scenes the movie verges beyond satire and evokes a sense of poignancy in its pop mythology of a cadre of well-dressed but unsung heroes, men who sever all human contacts and lead lives of thankless vigilance on behalf of an unknowing, unappreciative populace. "There’s always an alien battle cruiser," Kay lectures Jay, "or a Korlian death ray, or an intergalactic plague about to wipe out life on this planet. And the only thing that lets people get on with their hopeful little lives is that they don’t know about it." The Men in Black are a bit like the angels, I suppose, though as human beings they’re less suited to that kind of work. But how many other movies of this sort have protagonists who really qualify as "human beings"?

Not that there’s any profound human meaning or moral underlying Men in Black. It’s just good, gooey fun… and sometimes that’s enough.

Tags: Antisocial Aliens, Sci-fi Comedy, Action, Comedy, Science Fiction

Related Content

Review: Men in Black II (2002)

C- | ** | +0| Teens & Up

Beyond more action and bigger effects, the sequel brings nothing new to the table. You’ll wait in vain for satirical "revelations" about the presence of aliens among us to match the wit of the jokes in the original about cab drivers or the World’s Fair. Instead, we get limp gags like the one about the Post Office being staffed by aliens. (Why? Is it a joke about postal efficiency? The "going postal" stereotype? The fact that they make rounds? What?)

Continue reading this review >

Review: Men in Black 3 (2012)

C+ | **½ | +0| Teens & Up

It’s all acceptably diverting, and not actively unpleasant like the 2002 sequel. There are no grand twists or revelations comparable to the truth about the “galaxy” in the original. What the film could most use, I think, is a wide-eyed uninitiate like Linda Fiorentino in the original or Rosario Dawson in the sequel — but one from 1969, which would offer a fresh twist on the outsider’s experience of the MIB’s nutty world.

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