Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

MEN IN BLACK ** 3/4 (1997)

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. Produced by Walter F. Parkes, Laurie MacDonald.Screen Story and Screenplay by Ed Solomon. Based on the Malibu comic by Lowell Cunningham.Photography, Don Peterman. Editing, Jim Miller. Production design, Bo Welch. Costumes,Mary E. Vogt. Visual Effects Supervisor, Eric Brevig. Alien Make-Up Effects Rick Baker. Co-Producer, Graham Place. Executive Producer, Steven Spielberg. Music, Danny Elfman. Cast: Tommy Lee Jones (K), Will Smith (J), Linda Fiorentino (Laurel), Vincent D'Onofrio (Edgar), Rip Torn (Zed), Tony Shalhoub (Jeebs), Siobhan Fallon (Beatrice), et al. An Amblin production released by Columbia. 96 min. PG-13.
Will Smith's good looks and good timing, ironic mien and overall cool make him a capital asset of this yap and zap movie, along with Tommy Lee Jones in what is probably his first out-and-out comic role, played tongue-in-cheek, mostly deadpan, with a delivery of lines faster than any character's in a Howard Hawks screwball entertainment.

MIB is a spoof of many things, primarily of sci-fi flicks and specifically of nasty non-brothers from other planets. It also changes a "serious" comic-book into comedy. Jones (whose name is K in a throwaway Kafka joke) belongs to a super-super-secret government outfit, so secret that other agencies know of it. The Men in Black are after illegal aliens, nor your garden variety undocumented Mexicans, Paraguyans, Antilleans, Nigerians or former Sovietskis, but real E.T. aliens. In a spoof of census-taking, the secret agents know that some 1,500 outer-spacers live in the USA.

Most are "good citizens" and are left alone. But the occasional bad 'uns, destroyers in a mind-boggling variety of forms (such as nasty Spielbergian gremlims, insect-like monsters, critters a la Alien, animals, ordinary humans, and so on), have to be terminated with extreme prejudice.The ingenious way K searches for them is by reading supermarket tabloids. Clever and funny.

As his venerably-aged partner wishes to retire, K, looking for a replacement, selects NYPD cop Smith, who becomes J. The two engage in a mad series of comically vigorous feats.

The opening sequences are funny. The MIB secret immigration building is a howl, especially as weird creatures are asked by Customs if they are carrying forbidden fruit, vegretables and the like. Jones's patter (it often reaches rhetorical heights) is very funny. Te neural neutralizer, a gizmo that zaps selected periods of memory, is amusing. (To avoid its effects the Men in Black wear dark, aptly named Ray-Ban glasses. That's the best product placement in years).

Most funny too is when Will Jones is somehow led to a recruiting room of the MIB yet has no idea as to why he is there. Zed (the great Rip Torn,good in any role, even the smallish one here) administers a test to the Best of the Best of the Best, all in uniform (they are the cream of the military), bellowing cliches. Smith wears flamboyant street casuals.

An even funnie small gem is when, absurdly and unflappably, Smith takes the written exam sitting in a modernistic boothlike seat, with nothing to place the questionnaire on, using a pencil that breaks and pierces sheets of paper, yet coming out the victor. that have no place on which to lie, is a small gem. The scene was probably influenced by movies of the late Francois Truffaut, in which schoolchildren have no end of problems with ink and copybooks. (Elsewhere there are also middlin' funny throwaway references to movies and TV such as Sgt. Friday, Jeopardy, etc.)

Such passages, plus the two partners, are delightful. The other major assets of the film are most imaginative photography and amazing special effects that include morphing and transformations.

Now to the negatives. There is no true plot, unity or continuity. The movie grows as, and into, a catch-all. There is a lack of logic and explanations, even by crazy standards. Anything goes, anything is good for a gag or verbal or visual joke, whether it's about an E.T. squid baby to Dennis Rodman, to goings on in the morgue, to a farmer's wife (no, not the usual traveling salesman salacious jokes). Most work amusingly, but the over-episodic structure, the arbitrariness of events, the unending yap and zap, lessen the movie. Too much is too much and may, depending on the viewer, start leading to tedium abetted by the unsolved problem of "how can we end this picture?" Well, it just fizzles.

I grant you that it is not easy to parody sci-fi films, not just the funny ones but those eager movies that, from a certain angle, are themselves unconscious parodies. Even so, Men In Black is guilty of what is often a central problem of the movies it spoofs: overkill.

As it runs 96 minutes, MIB might be given a cautious certificate of membership in BBNMM,the famed organization Bring Back the Ninety Minute Movies. With ten minutes cut and much tighter construction, MIB may even have been a candidate for a Certificate of Merit.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel