Men In Black (1997)

D: Barry Sonnenfeld
S: Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Linda Fiorentino

Entertaining though ultimately unsatisfying comedy sci-fi spectacular from Addams Family director Barry Sonnenfeld and Bill & Ted writer Ed Solomon. Described in various reviews as X-Files meets The Blues Brothers and the like, the film (based on a comic strip), while it does demonstrate elements and influences of other genre hits, ultimately owes its debt to the particular talents of its writer and director.

The premise is irresistible enough. For some years now ufologists have told tales of mysterious 'men in black' who visit in the wake of alien encounters (presumably representing some sinister division of the U.S. Government eager to repress the truth). This film reveals, startlingly, that all of the hogwash is absolute fact, and not only that, but supermarket tabloids like The Weekly World News contain "the best investigative journalism on the planet." So in a perverse parody of The X-Files, 'trust everyone' is the order of the day; because no matter how outlandish the suggestion, it's all true. Aliens live among us, mostly posing as human beings and working as legal immigrants. In order to keep a lid on things, and make sure the visitors behave themselves, the MIB are on hand. They are the best kept secret in the universe: our best, last and only defence. This concept drives the film right from the moment you see the trailer, and even though the script has no other cards to play, there's enough gadgetry and gimmickry to hold our attention as the necessarily formulaic plot trundles along to a contrived and weakly predictable conclusion. It's a one-joke movie, but the joke is funny enough to hold your attention as Sonnenfeld and Solomon push the appropriate buttons to make a harmless concoction of gags, monsters and explosions pay off in the name of entertainment.

The actual plot has New York cop Will Smith embroiled in an interplanetary conflict when he runs down a robbery suspect who turns out to be an alien. He encounters MIB Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), who decides that the former's energy and enthusiasm might just be useful and recruits him for the organisation. Meanwhile, a dangerous creature has landed on Earth in search of an elusive power source (whose location you will guess long, long before the heroes do) and taken possession of the body of a violent redneck (Vincent D'Onofrio, whose performance underneath heaps of revolting make-up must rank as one of the most dedicated in recent years). The Men In Black have to track him down and save the planet without letting a single civilian in on what's going on, including beleagued pathologist Linda Fiorentino.

The film begins with a dazzling but irrelevant title sequence where Sonnenfeld indulges himself by swooping around a desert highway on the trail of a computer-generated insect (which eventually meets the predictable end on the windshield of a van). This is accompanied by Danny Elfman's bouncy title music, which is pleasant enough, but very derivative of Beetlejuice. From this moment on, you realise that the film will not be breathtakingly original, but will be well done all around, and it is. It never really comes up with any surprises, and each new visual jolt is merely another in a list of special effects coups or production design concepts with which relatively little is done beyond the immediate.

But Sonnenfeld pulls off the delicate balancing act of making the on-screen shenanigans convincing enough to sustain disbelief, but parodic enough for knowing winks to the audience to add to the fun without becoming condescending. Solomon's script hits the right note to even allow forays into the obvious (a computer screen showing prominent registered aliens on earth displays images of, among others, Sylvester Stallone and George Lucas), by keeping things swift and sharp, and using the age old narrative paradigm of mentor/student buddy movie to allows us to explore the world of the film with a workable mixture of tongue-in-cheek humour and wide-eyed wonder.

But the film is finally anchored by its stars, who are totally in tune with the needs of both script and direction. Having demonstrated a talent for seriocomic heroism in Bad Boys and Independence Day, Will Smith once again plays the combination of sassy and straight which makes him believable even in the most outrageous circumstances. Tommy Lee Jones brings a good blend of deadpan comedy and sympathetic characterisation to his role, playing the unflappable but world-weary veteran. The two men play off each other very well, though the dynamics of their relationship are of course familiar to anyone who's ever seen a movie.

Support from a variety of human and non-human cast members keeps things on the right side of farcical. Rip Torn plays the MIB head with his usual straightness, Vincent D'Onofrio is marvelously physical underneath the latex, and the various aliens are both creatively designed and full of individual character. Only Fiorentino's role goes awry. The part is hopelessly underdeveloped, and seems to exist only to provide a few cheap laughs, a smattering of heterosexuality and an opportunity for some 'damsel in distress' action (with a predictable final 'feminist' twist). It is an undignified part played with as much enthusiasm as the actor can muster under the circumstances. Presumably her contract contains an option on MIB2, because that would seem to be her only justification.

But it's all very enjoyable nonetheless, and one gets the sense that it has been made for people to enjoy, without being a wannabe blockbuster like The Lost World or Batman and Robin. The fact that it outgrossed both of them is testament to the public's awareness of when they're being taken for a ride and when they're being taken to the cleaners. Men In Black is very much of the former disposition, and it's best to lay back and enjoy it.

Note: The Region 2 DVD comes in two versions, both with interesting extra features. The Special Edition, on two discs, is extremely well loaded and a must for collectors. Of course, on reflection, the film is not necessarily deserving of such lavish treatment, and viewers may not be willing to shell out the cash for it if they have it already on video. Fans will.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.