A delightfully deadpan action comedy that goes to town with our long-held paranoia about the government’s relationship with space aliens, “Men in Black” is smart, funny and exuberantly creative - a triumphant blend of droll tone and wacky special effects from director Barry Sonnenfeld.
Based on an obscure comic book series by Lowell Cunningham, “Men in Black” invents a United States where alien arrivals are old news - multitudes of the creatures have been here for decades, their comings and goings monitored by an FBI-like government agency, the Men in Black (MiB), whose function is to keep the truth from the rest of us, who presumably couldn’t handle it.
Nattily attired in black suits, skinny ties and RayBans, and fitted out with the kind of weapons that kids will be clamoring for in merchandising tie-ins, the MiB keep their operation secret by using a wandlike device to erase all memory of alien events from any witnesses.
Amusingly, they get leads on alien landings from the supermarket tabloids, meaning that citizens who style themselves too smart to fall for that guff are actually aiding the government’s cover-up.
The action starts along the U.S. border, where veteran agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) shows up to give new meaning to the word “alien” when he picks a space invader out of a lineup of busted Mexican immigrants.
Ultra-authoritative and ultra-droll, this seen-it-all insider is so far ahead of everyone else in his perceptions of what’s going on around him that he pretty much sets the tone for the entire movie.
When K’s aging partner gives out, he recruits a new one from among New York City’s street cops - James, later known as J, played by Will Smith (“Independence Day”) with a physical exuberance and cartoony, open-faced naivete that makes the perfect foil for Jones’ unflappable cool.
With their long black Ford LTD and their retro attire, these G-men bring a ‘60s-era panache to the ‘90s buddy comedy, and the genre-bending is further enhanced by their matter-of-fact mixing with a wild array of alien creatures, inventively designed by Rick Baker (“Gremlins,” “Harry and the Hendersons”).
Running the gamut from pop-eyed, flippered 6-foot-tall lizards that walk upright to little green men in the E.T. mode, these creatures, no doubt styled with a nod to the movie’s executive producer, Steven Spielberg, are what catapult the movie into an extra-imaginative dimension and make its comic-book origins essential.
It’d be easy for such an amalgam of pop-culture influences to turn junky - a dispiriting mishmash like “Batman & Robin” comes to mind - but Sonnenfeld, who has recently honed his directorial skills on “Get Shorty” and “The Addams Family” movies, keeps the tone superbly consistent and droll.
On “Men in Black,” he pulls it all together to establish a raunchy, low-key, underplayed universe where the most outrageous things can happen and nobody bats an eyelash.
Also bringing it all home is Jones, who gets to do a finely honed parody of the in-charge figure he’s been repeating ad nauseam ever since “The Fugitive.”
Kudos also to screenwriter Ed Solomon, whose snappy, quip-laden dialogue does much to elevate the picture’s IQ.
xxxx “Men in Black” Locations: Newport, East Sprague, Showboat Credits: Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, starring Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Linda Fiorentino and Vincent D’Onofrio. Running time: 1:38 Rating: PG-13
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