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'Men in Black:' DO believe the hype

July 4, 1997
Web posted at: 5:00 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT)
Movie shots

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- I tell you, it's a miracle. After a pre-release advertising campaign that made the film's key images more readily available than oxygen itself, "Men in Black" has finally arrived in the nation's theaters. My first inclination would be to yawn, but stop the presses -- this time the prefabricated hype is actually supported by what takes place on screen! "Men in Black" is the wryest, sharpest, most entertaining special effects film in recent memory, a simultaneous participant and mocking parody of the more-bang-for-your-buck behemoth genre.

If it's the Big Boom you're looking for, there's more than enough of that kind of thing to make you happy, but this is one smartly written and executed movie. Director Barry Sonnenfeld and screenwriter Ed Solomon have concocted an absurdist melange of knowing pop cultural references and nutty situation comedy that owes as much to David Letterman's skewed cynicism as it does to "Total Recall" or "Batman."

To say that the film doesn't take itself seriously is missing the point. It doesn't take anything seriously, not you, not me, not even Tommy Lee Jones. The possible annihilation of planet Earth by a race of 15-foot tall "interstellar cockroaches" is treated by the story's eponymous secret agents as a crick in the neck, just another day at the office. I nearly laughed myself silly.

Even the credits, written in an elongated, childish scrawl, are a knowing nod to that other valentine to world destruction, Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove." As the film opens, we meet Tommy Lee Jones (as the mysterious Agent K), stopping a van load of illegal Mexican immigrants on a lonely desert road. Jones handles the situation in an amusingly grim, businesslike manner, eventually selecting one immigrant and letting the rest go.

It turns out that the one he detains is an alien all right, but he's not from Mexico. He's not even from our solar system. This is made abundantly clear when Jones slices the man open, revealing a squirming, slick-skinned blob of a space creature crouched down and holding the "immigrant's" head on a stick. Jones whips out his ray gun and yells, "Put up your arms and all of your flippers," but things quickly get out of hand. He's soon forced to take care of the situation by blasting the attacking alien into a gelatinous goo. Funny, cool, and it looks neat, too.

Jones eventually recruits Will Smith (who, when we initially meet him, is a New York City undercover cop) into the fold of The Men in Black. This is Smith at his most likable, having a ton of fun with a role that's a heck of a lot better written than his fighter pilot in last year's overhyped (and over-watched) alien-fest, "Independence Day."

Men In Black
video icon Clip: "That stings!" (33sec/1.3M QuickTime movie)

Entire movie trailer: (2:20/5.5M QuickTime movie)

Smith is continually bemused by Jones and the organization they work for. These alien chasers are so secretive, the government doesn't even know about them. When Smith wonders where they get the money to pay for their state-of-the-art operations center, Jones explains that they hold several patents that were confiscated from the invaders, namely Velcro, microwave ovens, and liposuction devices. He also holds up a small disk that will soon replace the CD, bemoaning the fact that he'll have to buy yet another copy of The Beatles' "White Album."

That's what the jokes are like, witty dissections of our cultural obsessions not unlike the stuff you see on "The Simpsons." Jones explains that there are 1,500 aliens at any given time on Planet Earth, with most of them residing in New York City; not as many of them as you would expect are cab drivers. (This drew a huge burst of laughter in the Manhattan theater where I watched the movie.) He also shows Smith a video image of alien visitors currently residing on our planet, including Newt Gingrich, Sylvester Stallone, and Al Roker. Lest anyone think this would get tiresome after a while, these references aren't piled on, they weave in and out of the goofy physical humor and well-done action sequences.

The whole thing is just darn wacky, creating situations that lend themselves to the most bizarre dialogue this side of the Coen brothers (for whom Sonnenfeld shot several movies when he was a cinematographer). Where else are you going to get to hear Will Smith say, "That's what the little dude inside the big dude's head said"? My favorite scene is when Jones and Smith attempt to interrogate a talking bull terrier who has an alien living inside of him. The terrier is one sarcastic little puppy, and Jones has to pick him up and vigorously shake him up and down to get him to spit out the information they're looking for. This moment alone is worth the price of admission.

Linda Fiorentino and Rip Torn also join in on the fun, but a special nod has to go to Vincent D'Onofrio as an unfortunate farmer whose skin is co-opted by one of the visitors. He spends the entire film staggering, drooling, and choking around Manhattan like a zombie with inner ear trouble. Watching this monstrosity deliver a plateful of pirogies in a Greenwich Village diner is near sublime. People might think I'm nuts (not a first), but I think D'Onofrio should get a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.

Word is already out that they're planning a sequel to "Men in Black," and I'm all for it. Joel Schumacher and his writer from "Batman & Robin" ought to sit down and watch this thing to see how it's really done. Considering the sharp construction and lack of fourth grade-level puns on display, they probably won't get it.

As you might expect, "Men in Black" is loud and violent, but cartoonishly so. The kids should eat it up, but I'm sure a lot of it will be over their heads. Let 'em go anyway, and by all means come with them. Rated PG-13. 110 minutes.

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