It’s a fairly accurate comment to say that the summer season of 1997 was somewhat bloated, but when you dig into the list of offenders released it becomes more than apparent that it carried more excess weight than Jabba The Hutt at an all you can eat BBQ. The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Batman & Robin and Speed 2: Cruise Control all impressively underwhelmed despite throwing everything at us but the CGI kitchen sink to wearying effect, exhausting their audiences with shitty plots and empty visuals.
However, emerging from this rapidly disappointing season, like a glistening, metallic UFO, was Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men In Black, a big budget adaptation of an indie comic no one had ever heard of which managed to harness the raw, streaking meteorite that was Will Smith’s 90’s movie career and bolted it to a legitimately great script.
Needless to say the results were a massive breath of fresh air, a truly magnificent on screen duo and a newly minted franchise that, unfortunately, became the Batman & Robin’s and Speed 2’s of their time – but y’know what? Never mind that right now…
After a New York detective has a run in with a perp who boasts two sets of eyelids, he finds himself applying for a secret organization known as the Men In Black, a mysterious police force enlisted to keep the various alien lifeforms who live on our planet in line (“Did you ever see the movie Casablanca? Same thing except without the Nazis.” is the droll encapsulation). Under the tutelage of the impenetrably stoic Agent K, the newly christened Agent J finds himself in a bizarre new world he has to adapt to on the fly, a task made all the more difficult with the arrival of Vincent D’Onofrio’s wonderfully crabby villain, Edgar The Bug (you’d be permanently pissed too if you were 15 feet of insect crammed into the skin of a doughy farmer). Set on creating an intergalactic incident by murdering members of an alien royal family in order to get his hands on a space macguffin, Edgar stomps around a nonplussed New York in his deteriorating man suit trying to accomplish his mission of destruction while the Men In Black are hot on his trail.
While picking on various funny aspects of life (the dodgy tabloids are actually great examples of journalism, many celebrities are extra terrestrials in disguise) Agent J must gain the trust of his senior partner (not easy when he has all the facial expressions of one of those stone heads on Easter Island) while saving the world from imminent destruction.
As many failed movies will attest, loading a ton of special effects into your high-concept comedy doesn’t always lead to having the next Ghostbusters – hell, even Ghostbusters 2 wasn’t the next Ghostbusters – and a fair few died trying (anyone remember Evolution?). What makes Men In Black different from the majority of the heard is that every virtually joke in every scene has been honed to razor sharp perfection without a single witty remark or surreal visual pun falling flat – a feat that’s only aided by it’s admirably short running time of a lean, mean hour and thirty minutes. A summer blockbuster that’s shorter than Danny Devito in the fetal position means that no joke is wasted and no scene outstays it’s welcome which is the beneficial effect of the film’s chief architects working at the height of their powers.
Back before MIB sequels and Wild Wild West tore his credibility to shreds, Barry Sonnenfeld had honed his Tim Burton meets The Cohen Brothers style with his two Addams Family movie and his vision of making MIB essentially The French Connection But Funny And With Aliens pays off in spades. In 1997, Sonnenfeld man knew funny and isn’t afraid to show it, utilising every frame and weird lens in the book to highlight the laughs, usually at the expense of it’s charismatically super charged star…
What hasn’t been said about Will Smith at this point? Virtually everything about the man the world fell in love with us in full effect here, the boyish charm, the streetwise smack-talking (“N-Y-P-D means I-will-KNOCK-YOUR-PUNKASS-DOWN!”), the very fact that he’s Will fucking Smith dammit – even his admittedly-too-on-the-nose theme song still manages to be unbearably catchy after all this time. The man can’t put a foot wrong, whether he’s being puked on by an adorable newborn baby space-squid or getting stomped on by a giant cockroach and you can virtually see his star reaching it’s zenith as you watch. But as hyper and energetic as Smith is, he’s more than matched by the peerless dead-panning of the heroically stoic Tommy Lee Jones. It’s unfeasibly hard to be the straight man in a comedy act AND still manage to be funny, but Jones’ world weary, been there done that Agent K could possibly be one of the greatest performances of the genre. “Anything about that seem weird to you?” he casually asks after the two have to deliver a baby from a traumatic mass of thrashing tentacles, utilising that impenetrable face to phenomenal use and his shake down of an alien pug dog named Frank is majestic. As a double act, Misters Smith and Jones are a formidable team, teeing off joke after joke for each other while sharing amazing chemistry – something that’s not always easy to do (just ask Jim Carrey on the set of Batman Forever).
While maybe some other aspects of the film may be a little undercooked (Linda Fiorentino’s suspicious coroner was as forgotten by the audience as she was by the sequels and the macguffin fuelled plot is relatively by the numbers) the movie, among the copious alien-themed gags manages to pull out a stunningly arresting image every 10 minutes thanks to faultless work from both ILM (the CGI still holds up) and the legendary Rick Baker, whose physical creations are frankly amazing. A character who’s skull is blown off regrows in seconds before your very eyes, a murdered man is revealed to merely be a construct piloted by a tiny alien inside the head, an illegal alien crossing the border is revealed to be an ACTUAL alien called Mikey; the invention is seemingly never ending and effortlessly iconic – who can forget the handy, mind erasing neuralizers or the tiny hand gun dubbed “the noisy cricket” that discharges a load powerful enough to blow a hole in a brick wall, or the creepy, chain smoking worm guys?
But ultimately what makes MIB work is the moments of heart in between the insanity; the fact that J and K aren’t happy with their respective lives, that K has a lost love and that being an MIB agent in New York is quite possibly the most thankless job in existence; and these do a great job of grounding a movie that has Rip Torn screaming at a gang of invertebrates for abandoning the doomed earth with tons of duty free cigarettes.
A definite high point of late-nineties blockbuster cinema and a rare example of a special effects comedy expertly balancing visuals and laughs, Men In Black has a beating heart and a healthy sense of humour to go with that flashy suit that’s satisfyingly fresh.