Men in Black (1997)
“Protecting the earth from the scum of the universe”
Men in Black (1997)
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Linda Fiorentino
Synopsis: A police officer joins a secret organization that polices and monitors extra terrestrial interactions on planet earth.
The idea of aliens living undetected amongst us was a well-used SF concept even back in 1997 when Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black was released to virtually universal acclaim. In the past, however, the subject was a deadly serious one confined largely to the drive-in B-movie sub-genre. The clever thing about Sonnenfeld’s movie, which was based on a Marvel comic, was that it treated the idea as a source of broad comedy complete with big stars and bigger effects. But while the groundbreaking special effects were fun, for once they weren’t the sole reason for the movie’s existence. Even now, when someone mentions Men in Black, it’s not the aliens we remember, but two men wearing black suits and shades.
Those two men are Tommy Lee Jones (JFK, The Family) and Will Smith (Bad Boys, Independence Day) as Special Agents Jay and Kay respectively. Jay and Kay are agents for the INS, an organisation tasked with monitoring the activities of around 1,500 aliens, most of whom live in Manhattan. Kay’s the new recruit, a former cop who serves as the audience surrogate through which the operation of the organisation is explained. Plot-wise, there isn’t much going on. A rogue alien hijacks the body of hick farmer, Edgar (Vincent D’Onofrio – The Judge, Run All Night) and goes in search of a galaxy contained within an amulet hanging from a cat collar. The earth faces total destruction if Edgar gets his hands on the galaxy, triggering a desperate race against time to prevent him from succeeding.
Summer blockbusters have a habit of taking themselves too seriously, but Men In Black refreshingly bucks that trend by embracing any opportunity to poke fun at the SF genre. Most of its aliens masquerade as humans, comical variations on stereotypically quirky New Yorkers, who are given recognisably human characteristics by Rick Baker’s terrific special effects work. These aliens are either shifty, vaguely seedy characters, or toiling in menial jobs and dogged by the kind of automatic guilt when coming up against an INS agent that some of us humans feel when faced with a cop. Jay and Kay treat them with the kind of no-nonsense lack of tolerance that would have many up in arms if their treatment were aimed at real humans, but it’s all for the greater good and the movie never questions the justification for their behaviour.
Smith and Jones see no reason to move away from their established screen personas, with the older man delivering deadpan retorts to Smith’s hip attitude. They form an enjoyable partnership as they swap snappy lines while pursuing the quickly deteriorating Edgar, a role which offers Vincent D’Onofrio a rare opportunity to display his comic talent. Only Linda Fiorentino, an actress who has often proven difficult to cast, is given short shrift in a role that feels as if it has been shoehorned into the plot simply to provide the movie with a female lead.
(Reviewed 1st January 2016)
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