The Outer Limits of Fun : ‘Men in Black’ takes the alien theme, twists it in hip directions and adds some cool sight gags.
Go ahead, admit what you’ve always suspected: A certain percentage of people met in daily life are so strange, so out-and-out weird, they have to be aliens from another universe. Now, at last, comes a major motion picture that dares to tell you it’s all true.
Wised-up and offhandedly funny, “Men in Black” introduces us to the super-secret government agency, known as MiB for short, that makes those aliens toe the line. Starring the inspired pairing of Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith, “Men in Black” is a genially twisted riff on the familiar alien invaders story, a lively summer entertainment that marries a deadpan sense of humor to the strangest creatures around.
Based on obscure comic-book material, “Men in Black” has maintained the energy and sass of the form while taking on, in Ed Solomon’s screenplay, a hipster attitude that extends to the protagonists’ ever-present black suits and the Ray-Ban sunglasses they always wear.
Barry Sonnenfeld is an excellent director for this point of view, and “Men in Black” is a blend of the strengths of his previous films, the knowing humor of “Get Shorty” and the visual razzmatazz of “The Addams Family.” And Sonnenfeld also oversaw the smooth blending of the different comic styles of the picture’s two leads.
Jones, as his dead-on reading of the most memorable line in “The Fugitive” revealed, has a definite flair for gruff, acerbic humor. His Agent K is a no-nonsense government operative who suddenly shows up at a routine Border Patrol investigation of a suspicious truck near the Texas-Mexico line. One of its passengers, it turns out, has come from a lot farther than Cuernevaca.
In the meantime, James Edwards (Smith), a New York City cop with a glib, engaging cockiness, is doing his best to chase down a suspicious person with the unnerving, practically extraterrestrial, ability to just about leap tall buildings in a single bound.
Though MiB boss Zed (Rip Torn) is worried about Edwards’ insouciance, K admires his perseverance and is soon recruiting the cop to sever all human contact and join “the best of the best of the best” as Agent J. But not before a whole lot of explaining is taken care of.
Unbeknownst to most people, the planet Earth has volunteered its services as a safe zone where political refugees from other galaxies can live in peace, “kind of like Casablanca without Nazis,” in K’s helpful phrase. Mostly they’re law-abiding citizens, but MiB is around to hold the line when they turn rogue, which means using outlandish weaponry on some pretty weird individuals.
A good deal of the fun of “Men in Black” is joining Agent J as he gets acquainted with the variety of wacky aliens masquerading as humans that form K’s beat. Created by four-time special-effects Oscar winner Rick Baker, with an assist from Industrial Light & Magic, these include beings that sprout new heads like weeds, intergalactic emperors tiny enough to live in hollowed-out skulls and much larger and more formidable beings.
Though its charm is in its attitude and premise (and Danny Elfman’s rousing score), “Men in Black” does have a serviceable plot that kicks in when a rusty flying saucer crash-lands in a rural area.
Out comes an unseen-for-now creature who promptly rips off (literally) the ill-fitting skin of a local resident named Edgar (Vincent D’Onofrio) and lurches around Manhattan looking for the Arquillian galaxy, one of the treasures of the universe. That search involves considerable mayhem, which is where the boys make contact with the city’s deputy medical examiner, mistress of sang-froid Dr. Laura Weaver (Linda Fiorentino).
“Men in Black” is set in New York at the suggestion of its director, a native son, and that sets up inventive use of such landmarks as the Guggenheim Museum, the old World’s Fair grounds in Queens and the Battery Park vent room for the Holland Tunnel, plus the expected jokes about what percentage of cabbies are not of this Earth.
Hard to ignore because it’s partly unexpected is the film’s slime factor. “Men in Black” has periodic moments of gross-out humor that will not be to everyone’s taste, and when Edgar the invader finally reveals himself, he turns out to be more disturbing and off-putting than the film’s genial tone would have you expect.
But mostly what you get with “Men in Black” is the opportunity to spend some quality time with the Kings of Cool in a world where inconvenient memories get erased and supermarket tabloids offer the most reliable alien tips. It’s not the traditional world where only the bad guys wore black, but you already knew that, didn’t you?
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for language and sci-fi violence. Times guidelines: Some of the monsters are more disturbing than funny.
‘Men in Black’
Tommy Lee Jones: K
Will Smith: J
Linda Fiorentino: Laurel
Vincent D’Onofrio: Edgar
Rip Torn: Zed
Tony Shalhoub: Jeebs
An Amblin Entertainment production in association with MacDonald/Parkes productions, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Barry Sonnenfeld. Producers Walter F. Parkes, Laurie MacDonald. Executive producer Steven Spielberg. Screenplay Ed Solomon. Cinematographer Don Peterman. Editor Jim Miller. Costumes Mary E. Vogt. Music Danny Elfman. Production design Bo Welch. Art director Thomas Duffield. Set decorator Cheryl Carasik. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.