"May I ask why you felt little Tiffany deserved to die?" - Zed
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Writer: Lowell Cunningham, Ed Solomon
Principal cast members:
We fly into this movie on the wings of a dragonfly overlooking the desert border region of the southwestern US as a mysterious van drives through the night only to run into a border patrol roadblock (after running into our POV dragonfly). The jaded and weary border patrol officers promptly unload the driver's cargo of illegal aliens but before you know it, two more agents show up. They are men in decidedly unstylish black suits, road-weary faces, and absolutely uncompromising attitudes. They are … the Men in Black. Before long, they have separated one Mexican from the small herd of illegals and led him off over the dunes for a secluded conversation. Turns out, he is a real alien. As in: not of this planet.
This is our introduction to the bizarre world of Men in Black, an adaptation of a popular comic book and the embodiment of an urban legend turned into a delightful action-comedy starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. They play agents dedicated to protecting the world from real aliens from outer space while maintaining an aura of total anonymity and secrecy. They cover their tracks with liberal use of a device known as a "neuralyzer" that causes short term amnesia in anyone who views the brilliant flash it creates, provided you aren't wearing a pair of snazzy blues-musician sunglasses. Naturally, it is up to the Men in Black to save humanity from a galactic disaster and not surprisingly, they manage to succeed by the skin of their teeth.
Barry Sonnenfeld puts together a perfect meeting of characters and roles in this film and the chemistry that ensues leaves us wanting more while also leaving us thoroughly satisfied with the story we've seen. Tommy Lee Jones plays Agent K. Imagine Joe Friday in a science fiction novel and you've got a fair amount of Jones' portrayal. K is an extremely well-seasoned veteran of the MIB. He's seen it all and nothing surprises him. We get the feeling that he's well past any sense of panic or even mild surprise at the other-worldly threats to humanity that he must face on a daily basis. But he needs a new partner. His old friend, D, is well past his prime and ready to pack it in. K poignantly wipes his partner's memory and starts searching for a suitable replacement.
What he finds is a hip, streetwise New York cop named James Edwards. Will Smith is a delight as the irreverent and too-cool-for-this-suit street detective whom Jones recruits. He is brought in to audition and face testing with a group of clean-cut, over-achieving military school graduates who clearly find Edwards a bit too rebellious and non-conforming for comfort. Naturally, Jones thinks these qualities are exactly what he needs in a new partner.
The new agent, J, is a decided contrast to his older, more experienced partner. But before long, they begin to develop an effective partnership. Eventually, faced with an increasingly serious intergalactic crisis, they find a way to save the world even as K begins to face the reality that he is getting too old for this game and it is time to turn the reins over to the next generation.
Smith and Jones are naturally the primary foci for the story and their chemistry and camaraderie are outstanding throughout the film. In many ways, it is the typical odd couple pairing of partners we often see on police procedurals, but there is clearly something more at work here. The bizarre science fiction aspect adds depth to what would otherwise be a predictable framework. Jones' ability to be absolutely stone-faced in the presence of the most bizarre aliens imaginable is wonderful to watch while Smith's uncanny ability to improvise is equally enjoyable.
Turning in an outstanding job as the tired, hard-bitten chief of operations is the amazing Rip Torn as Zed. His dour demeanor as he asks Smith why little Tiffany deserved to die during a live-fire simulation is hilarious. Linda Fiorentino is also superb as the cynical and slightly deranged medical examiner whose brain cells may have been wiped by the neuralyzer a few too many times.
There are also a few bit parts that add immeasurably to the overall cohesion of the story. Siobahn Fallon is hilarious as the upstate farmer's wife who witnessed an alien possessing the body of her husband. Tony Shaloub as a resident alien pawnshop owner is also fascinating and funny, if more than a little creepy.
But taking the prize for most menacing alien disguised as a redneck is Vincent D'Onofrio as Edgar. D'Onofrio's twitchy, decomposing monster in a human's skin is weird and comically awkward while also being strangely menacing. His performance is amazing for its utter alien-ness while at the same time being a masterpiece of physical comedy.
There isn't anything profound or especially poignant hidden inside Men in Black. The one-liners and sarcastic quips are kind of textbook for the genre of buddy cops taking on the bad guys. But placed in the setting of strange intergalactic aliens invading the earth, there is a comedy goldmine waiting to be unearthed and Smith and Jones are masterful at maintaining the stereotypical cop relationship within this bizarre setting.
Adding to the subtle believability of this ultra-secret government agency is the tragically outdated space-age sixty-ish décor of their headquarters and their plain black suits. The overall look and feel of the MIB headquarters is a significant contributor to the willing suspension of disbelief necessary to truly enjoy this film. While the film did win an Oscar for makeup (for renowned monster creator Rick Baker), it also garnered nominations for art direction and set direction as well as for the music of Danny Elfman. These subtle contributions to the setting add immeasurably to the overall success of this movie as a comedy-adventure.
Overall, this is a film that can be enjoyed every now and then just for the sheer fun of the acting chemistry and ambience.
Coolness factor: 8
Overall entertainment: 8