A witty and sometimes surreal sci-fi comedy, “Men in Black” is a wild knuckleball of a movie that keeps dancing in and out of the strike zone. Diabolically funny at times and wonderfully matter-of-fact in its deadpan tone and presentation of aliens in our midst, this zippy curio based on an obscure comic-book series feels something like “Ghostbusters” as if done by the Coen brothers. Despite its sporadic lulls and misfires, the potent blend of surprising humor, cool attitude and eye-opening effects looks to trigger heavy commercial action.
Lowell Cunningham’s violent, little-known early-1990s comics “The Men in Black” were based on the premise of straight-laced G-men involved in a secret struggle against outer-space aliens. The film’s fabulous first half-hour could scarcely be more droll in the way it establishes the methods of the top-secret INS Division 6 to combat the evil that walks covertly among us.
Pic teasingly delivers the viewer into the action on the wings of a dragonfly from outer space, ending up in the middle of a desert where crack Division 6 agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) not only unmasks but defaces the true “alien” among a bunch of illegals being spirited across the border in a truck. To silence the numerous others who witnessed the emergence of the weird creature, K uses a special penlight-like device that instantly obliterates their short-term memory, a key tool in keeping the public docile and in the dark.
At the same time, a young New York cop (Will Smith) is chasing a criminal of seemingly superhuman athletic skills across Manhattan. When cornered, the thug warns his pursuer that the world is soon coming to an end before doing a back flip off the roof of the Guggenheim Museum.
In yet another parallel event, a grouchy farmer, Edgar (Vincent D’Onofrio), has an uncomfortably close encounter with a UFO from which he emerges as a sort of alien’s Frankenstein monster, a zombie single-mindedly devoted to doing the bidding of a commanding intelligence.
From the outset, the picture flatters the audience by inviting it to share its rarefied sense of cool. The key to this is provided by Jones’ character K, an old pro who is almost uniquely privy to the way the world really works and enjoys carte blanche to operate in it as he sees fit. For a while, the film is a rare example of successful mainstream surrealism, with utterly unexpected and bizarre sights presented routinely as part of the landscape, without so much as a raised eyebrow.
But with his old partner no longer up to the task of hunting aliens, K needs to train a new one. After a hilariously protracted examination, in which Smith’s irreverent black cop competes for the position with a bunch of fiercely correct military officers, the hipster wins the job, with the proviso that he give up his old identity, abandon all outside contacts, take the name J and wear nothing but a black suit, white shirt and tie (Ray-Bans are a permissible option).
J’s introduction to the inner sanctum of Division 6 provides a wondrous tour of a truly cracked world, one run by the imperious Zed (Rip Torn) in which dozens of blandly attired functionaries work side by side with a menagerie-like assortment of alien creatures who help in the agency’s work of keeping track of all extraterrestrials, a great many of whom just happen to reside in the New York City area.
Up to this point, “Men in Black” is utterly transporting in the way of the very best fantasy and sci-fi films. Unfortunately, it doesn’t manage to sustain this level of inventiveness, delight and surprise throughout the remaining two-thirds of the picture, going soft particularly around the middle as the new partners set out on their cases and indulge in only somewhat offbeat procedures.
The plot thickens when the cretinous Edgar, newly arrived in Manhattan, manages to kill a disguised alien leader in a deli and makes off with the invaluable Galaxy Diamond. With the fate of the world hanging, of course, in the balance, the men, with the help of a smart medical examiner (Linda Fiorentino) track Edgar down to Flushing and the site of the 1964 Worlds Fair. Here, in a bit of inspired lunacy, part of an old exhibit detaches to become an escaping flying saucer, which the agents shoot down, only to then be forced to do exceptionally messy battle with an enraged and voraciously carnivorous giant insect. Ending all but explicitly promises a sequel.
Despite the not always consistent level of imagination and creativity, pic operates on a gratifyingly high note of sophistication for such a wide-audience entertainment. Barry Sonnenfeld, who lensed several of the Coen brothers’ films before turning director and scoring with the “Addams Family” duo and especially “Get Shorty,” is ever-alert to the unusual comic touch that can enliven the material, and he and screenwriter Ed Solomon have good fun not only with the sometimes absurd contrasts the story offers, but also with such cultural icons as the supermarket tabloids, whose stories of aliens among us are given a new lease on life by the events herein revealed.
Story could have been sustained better with more character development, however superficial, particularly in the case of Smith’s J, whose street know-it-all attitude would have been helpfully augmented by some acquired knowledge and wisdom through the course of events. One doesn’t feel by the end that he’s remotely ready to take over from K, whose years of experience show in both Jones’ unruffled attitude and his craggy face.
Rick Baker’s varied cast of aliens is an unalloyed pleasure, and the creatures have been integrated into the live-action footage in an astonishingly seamless manner. Technically, the film is a marvel, capped by a devilishly clever final bookend. In addition to the many effects hands, special credit should go to Bo Welch’s constantly inventive production design, Don Peterman’s ultra-smooth lensing and Danny Elfman’s always lively score.
Like any good vintage New York film, the cast has real character down to the smallest roles (human and alien). While this is obviously a huge production, it feels uncommonly intimate and modest. At a snappy 98 minutes, it is also probably the shortest $100 million-plus picture on the books.