'Men in Black:' DO believe the hype
July 4, 1997
Web posted at: 5:00 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT)
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."
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
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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