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Men in Black Print E-mail
Monday, 04 September 2000
'Men in Black' is terrific entertainment, swift and sure of itself, never stepping over the lines of straight-faced comedy into obvious farce. The premise is at once familiar and fresh, the casting is on the money, it's directed in a light, breezy style by Barry Sonnenfeld, and written with poker-faced seriousness by Ed Solomon. Even though the ending doesn't have quite the intended punch, and though we are never told very clearly just what's going on -- there's a good reason for that -- it's so entertaining that few are likely to mind.
In an illuminating opening scene, we meet K (Tommy Lee Jones), a super-serious agent of the Men in Black, a secret government organization set up to protect both the 1500 or so space aliens visiting Earth at any given them, and to hide their presence from other human beings. The Men in Black provide an Immigration Service for aliens: they run a kind of Ellis Island for visitors from out there at 504 Battery Drive in New York. The Men in Black have all kinds of spiffy gadgets to help them with this, and K is the best of all the agents.

When New York cop James Edwards (Will Smith) runs afoul of an alien, his courage and ability to accept all this impresses K, who invites Edwards to 504 Battery the next day, where after an amusing series of tests, he is inducted as agent J into the Men in Black, who are led by stern Zed (Rip Torn).

Meanwhile, a spaceship has crashed on a farm out in the New York countryside. Edgar (Vincent D'Onofrio), the rude, crude farmer is hollowed out by the alien, who dons Edgar's skin. He then begins a clumsy reign of terror as he tries to track down something we learn is called "the galaxy on Orion's belt." He's hampered by the skin not fitting right -- when the real Edgar is revealed at the end, the ill fit is more than adequately explained -- and by it slowly decaying, but he perseveres, considering himself utterly superior to all the "meat socks" on Earth.

Eventually, of course, J and K are pitted against Edgar, but they get unexpected help from city coroner Laurel Weaver (Linda Fiorentino), who's puzzled by the series of strange bodies that have been flooding her morgue. K and J only have 24 hours to retrieve the whatsit, or aliens in orbit will destroy the Earth. ("Sorry," the aliens add at the end of their ultimatum.) This all leads to a climax at the old world's fair in Queens -- which was built there to accommodate aliens, K reveals. "Why else would we build it in Queens?" he asks reasonably.

'Men in Black' is loosely based on a short-lived comic book by Lowell Cunningham, which had its own origins in UFO mythology. But when Barry Sonnenfeld was hired to direct and Ed Solomon -- from the Bill & Ted movies -- was chosen to write the script, the film took off in a comic direction, quite unlike the violent, grim comic book.
It's a remarkably refreshing movie; it has no hidden agendas, it's merely trying to entertain in an intelligent way. Though the movie is rife with effects, it is most definitely not ABOUT the effects.

Although it's definitely a comedy, it's played very straight -- that's why it works so well -- and all the gags and humor arise out of the characters and situations; they are not imposed on the material, as is the case with most action movies with jokes. Sonnenfeld's films have a core of normalcy around which the bizarre events swirl. Here, the normalcy is the Men in Black themselves, who treat everything with utter sang froid. This is the way the world is, after all, and they're used to it.

Danny Elfman provides yet another distinctive, vivid and appropriate score; like Jerry Goldsmith, he writes scores that are radically unlike one another, but also have common themes and styles that make them clearly the work of this specific composer. Bo Welch's production design is also a perfect match to the script: straight but funny because it's straight. Men in Black headquarters is all glass, chrome and white-and-black tiles, like a 1960s-era airport (his inspiration, in fact). It looks both futuristic and retro: the past's view of the future.

'Men in Black' has appeared on DVD in several editions; this is the fanciest version, a two-disc set ripe with extras. Sonnenfeld and Jones provide the commentary track; you can even view it with their silhouettes in the foreground. Both are very amusing as well as informative, and Sonnenfeld has great fun with a stylus that allows him to draw lines on the image. He eventually autographs the movie. There's also "technical audio commentary" featuring Sonnenfeld, Rick Baker and experts from Industrial Light & Magic, but the one with Jones is more fun.

The film, on the first disc, has been digitally remastered, and can be played at ear-splitting levels, if you want to demonstrate your home theater equipment. Some good chapters for this kind of thing include 4, with the spaceship crash, the street fight in chapter 20, the upside-down car in chapter 25, and of course the big battle with the Edgar Bug in chapter 26.

Disc two has a some alien drawings that morph into further variations on the same characters, storyboard/scene comparisons, a few boring extended/alternate scenes, lots of production art, a section allowing the viewer to re-edit three different scenes, a pretty bad music video with Will Smith, DVD-ROM and web links, and, best of all, a couple of documentaries. Even the publicity-oriented "making of" is getter than usual, but the best of the two is "Metamorphosis of 'Men in Black,'" a well-produced tale of how the film came out the way it did. In post production, for example, the entire plot involving the aliens was changed, and an entire race was written out of the movie. There's also a pretty good booklet which exists almost solely to explain all the features on this state-of-the-art DVD.

These all-stops-out DVDs are becoming more common; the one for 'Terminator 2' is pretty awesome as well. But 'Men in Black' sets the bar pretty damned high, and the movie is terrific, too.

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