Men in Black (1997)

reviewed by
Steve Rhodes

                             MEN IN BLACK
                     A film review by Steve Rhodes
                      Copyright 1997 Steve Rhodes
RATING (0 TO ****):  ***

"You can have my gun when you pry it from my cold dead fingers," boldly proclaims a shotgun-carrying redneck named Edgar (Vincent D'Onofrio) to the alien who had the audacity to trash his pickup truck by landing a flying saucer in his yard. "Your proposal is accepted," replies the alien just before he fries poor Edgar's tiny brain.

Yes, it's the hit of the summer, MEN IN BLACK, which is everything that last year's MARS ATTACKS! should have been, but wasn't.

The legal vs. illegal alien controversy from today's news headlines continues in this dead serious comedy about a different class of aliens, those from outer space. In some careful casting, Tommy Lee Jones is marvelous as seasoned agent K of Division 6. Don't be surprised if you haven't heard of Division 6 of the Immigration and Naturalization Services, neither have any of the "normal" agents of the INS in this film.

The following may come as a shock to you, it did to James Edwards, so you may want to sit down. There are over 1,500 aliens living on earth. Now, not to worry, since most of them are "hard working types trying to make a living." But then there are those few renegades and misfits. Division 6 was set up to keep all the aliens under control and keep knowledge of their existence away from you and me, lest we become frightened. (Personally, I would not be scared if I knew that creatures looking like members of the STAR WARS cantina, but more gooey, were infesting our planet. But you might panic.)

Rich Baker's work designing the aliens certainly deserves Oscar consideration for his mixture of silliness and function -- sort of a retro science fiction look for the 90s. Mary E. Vogt's costumes for the agents, think 60s James Bond suave with tapered suits, thin ties, and plain Ray Ban sunglasses -- all in black, provide the perfect complement to the aliens' kookiness.

James Edwards is an NYPD cop until K recruits him into the program as agent J. Will Smith, who was one of the best things about last summer's smash hit INDEPENDENCE DAY, plays J with a sweet naivete. When J is given a pip-squeak of a gun, he complains that he wants a big one like K's. In one of my son's favorite scenes, J's first use of the weapon knocks him back ten yards and blows an enormous hole across from him.

Ed Solomon's script has a stream of gags, most of which work, thanks to Barry Sonnenfeld's direction. J is shown a wall of television screens which are used to monitor such aliens as Sylvester Stallone, Steven Spielberg, Newt Gingrich, and others. It even has J's third grade teacher, whom he always suspected was from Venus (although it turned out to be Jupiter).

The story, which is based on a Lowell Cunningham comic book, teaches us valuable lessons. Perhaps the most instructive is that we learn that Division 6 uses the hot sheets, you know them as the tabloids, as research material. All of those alien sightings blazed across their headlines are actually true!

The sincerity with which the actors approach their material makes the movie. While posing as an FBI agent, K explains in no uncertain terms that, "We here at the FBI, do not have a sense of humor we are aware of."

MEN IN BLACK is one of the few films that would be better if it were longer. Editor Jim Miller has simply chopped too much. The resulting movie feels like they were scared that we would grow tired if shown too much of it, so they trimmed out every non-essential scene. The result is a story that jerks along as if key scenes are missing.

Linda Fiorentino, who gave a brilliant and rock hard performance in THE LAST SEDUCTION, plays the underwritten role of the medical examiner, Dr. Laurel Weaver. (But as everyone is probably now aware, we are likely to see a lot more of her as agent L in MEN IN BLACK 2.) Fiorentino is bursting with talent but has been unable, until now perhaps, to land a high profile part. She has the abilities to be a star, but stardom has managed to elude her thus far. I hope some producer, with the right, big part, discovers her and takes a risk on her in a starring role.

Oh yes, along the way there is the outline of a plot. ("Deliver the galaxy or the earth will be destroyed," warns a battleship from space so war must be eminent.) Still, you are likely to have trouble following the plot even if you take good notes. On the other hand, who cares? Much better to sit back and enjoy such morsels as Edgar's. After being transformed into an alien, he looks at the luscious Dr. Weaver. "You're coming with me," he informs her. "It's a long trip. I'll need a snack."

MEN IN BLACK runs 1:38. It is rated PG-13 for some mild profanities and sci-fi violence. The film should be fine for most kids around 8 and up. My son Jeffrey, age 8, got pretty scared and even talked about leaving at times, but ended up liking the show. His favorite monsters were the one in the beginning whom K orders, "put up your arms and all your flippers," and the big cockroach at the end. I thought the show was funny and imaginative so I am recommending it and giving it ***.

**** = A must see film. *** = Excellent show. Look for it. ** = Average movie. Kind of enjoyable. * = Poor show. Don't waste your money. 0 = Totally and painfully unbearable picture.

Opinions expressed are mine and not meant to reflect my employer's.

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