Men In Black (1997)

(In theaters, July 1997) In retrospect, disappointment was almost inevitable. Men In Black (the movie) is 1997’s Independence Day: Massively promoted escapist flick, with big special effects, creepy aliens, one-liners and Will Smith. Anticipation for it ranked somewhere between another Beatles concert and the Second Coming. The problem was that the premise was almost too good: Assume an organization checking up on all the (assumed) aliens on Earth. Then treat the subject with a hip, sarcastic attitude and dry cool wit. Then cast Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith in the title roles. And bring in ILM for the Special Effects. As I said, expectations can be too high. So, it’s somewhat of a surprise if Men In Black manages to be the movie that Independence Day and Mars Attacks! combined couldn’t be. Part of its success lies in the deadpan satiric take-off of America’s current psychosis (that’s one up on Independence Day) and another part of it lies in a more balanced script (take that, Mars Attacks!). Of course, one can’t deny the incredible charm and charisma of the Jones/Smith duo and the top-notch effects by Rick Baker and ILM. It’s a solid hour and a half of summer entertainment, without the plot holes and stupid character mistakes that have been the latest norm in Hollywood. In short, it’ll make millions. [January 1998: It did.] Peering closer, though, (or seeing it a second time) flaws appear: The script loses energy toward the end. Linda Fiorentino is grossly under-used. The basic story is a clear case of déjà-vu. Like fast food, Men in Black fills but never nourishes. Still, it remains the essence of coolness, summer’97-style. While unsatisfying, and far from completely exploiting all the facets of the exceptional premise, the story at least offers competence, something that has been missing from recent summer offerings. Go see it.

(Second viewing, On DVD, August 2002) Even as Barry Sonnenfeld’s more recent efforts have faltered in lazy, laugh-free big-budget embarrassments, the original Men In Black remains almost as fresh today than when it first came out. A savvy blend of comedy and conspiracy, this original installment zips along quickly, uses the charm of its two lead actors to their fullest potential and is rather nicely shot too. The DVD is a joy to explore as it covers most facets of the production. Alas, the director’s commentary quickly reveals that Sonnenfeld is a moron, which explains his later duds such as Wild Wild West. But if you tune him out and concentrate on the other participants, it’s not as bad. Men In Black is worth another look on DVD, especially if you haven’t seen the film in a while.

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