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When James Edwards (Will Smith) manages to rundown a bizarrely fast and agile criminal, revealed to be an alien, it impresses Agent Kay (Tommy Lee Jones), who invites him to join the Men in Black, a secret non-government agency that keeps track of extraterrestrial activity on the planet. After some convincing, Edwards agrees and he is partnered with Kay, learning straight away that a ‘bug’, a nasty species of cockroach-like creatures, has infiltrated the Earth and his actions have sparked a potential intergalactic war. It’s up to Agents Jay and Kay to save the day.
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, Men in Black is based on the comic book series of the same name. An imaginative adaptation, it is a solid mix of comedy and action with two great performances from Smith and Jones. With some very clever special effects (mostly practical), the whimsical story is boosted by a smart script and a great score by Danny Elfman.
On a park bench in the middle of the day, Kay offers Edwards the job by explaining that there are about 1500 aliens on the planet at any given moment, with most in New York City. They are generally good, just trying to make living. It’s a shock to the detective, and he naturally asks, why not tell the people, they are smart and can handle it. Kay says no, a person is smart, people are dumb. (It’s writing like this that make the film so special). Kay uses history as example, with people once ‘knowing’ that the world was the center of the universe, and then ‘knowing’ that the Earth is flat, and just a few minutes ago, Edwards ‘knowing’ that people were alone on this planet. None of them are true, but they were once. What will they know tomorrow? It’s an intriguing statement and Edwards listens on with growing fascination. He wants in. He want to join the MiB.
But what’s the catch? It’s easy, but drastic. He will severe all human contact and no one will ever know he exists, anywhere. Ever. He will disappear. It’s a difficult choice and one that Kay gives until sunrise for an answer. In a touching moment, we sit with Edwards on the bench as the sun sets and he remains unmoving, alone, thinking.
In the morning, he heads to the address given to join and through an elevator, enters a room where a man in a black suit waits with several military men sitting in oddly-shaped egg chairs. He’s told he’s late and to take a seat. Asking why these men are here, he’s told, quite enthusiastically by one of the uniformed recruits, that they are the best of the best of the best. MiB needs only one. The man in black (Rip Torn) explains they will take a few simple tests of motor skills, concentration and stamina. He leaves and the men break the seal on a packet of questions found on the inside of their chairs. As the awkwardly designed seats make it uncomfortable and difficult to write, each recruit has trouble completing the form. Meanwhile, Edwards is having is own issues. He doesn’t notice the band around the packet at first and tears the front page. Using his only pencil as a way to break the adhesive, he snaps it in half. Once he’s got the paper ready, he, like the others, can’t take the test as there are no flat surfaces in which to write. Well, save for one. In the room is a small white coffee table and when Edwards sees it, he stands and drags the heavy piece of furniture to his chair, the screech of the metal on the floor echoing like nails on a chalkboard. The men stop and stare and it suddenly becomes clear what the test was about.
Motor skills, concentration and stamina. That is what they are told, but that is not the truth because any person applying for a job requiring the best of the best of the best should know it would be something entirely different. Creative thinking is key, and Edwards, whose already demonstrated adept skills at problem-solving with his chase of the alien, does it again but in a far different, purposefully manipulative environment.
What’s on the paper is not important, only that using the paper is nearly impossible in the manner they think they are expected to use it. The men, all decorated and highly-trained soldiers, are used to tests and following orders without question. Edwards is the rebel, and it’s very important that once he spots the table, he get up and move it toward him by himself. Why?
First, he had options. He could have sat on the floor. He could have asked the men to help him move it. He doesn’t. Instead, he drags the heavy table across the room–in front of the watching men–and then uses it while sitting back in his egg-chair. So what if he’d sat on the floor? That shows he can use his environment, adapting as he needs to. Good. What if he asked for help? Leadership and teamwork skills. Also good. But not great. Dragging it alone across the room? He changes the environment and therefore the dynamic. This is what the MiB want. A quick thinker who can enter an unfamiliar situation, assess the options, and act independently so it benefits him.
Watching all of this through one-way mirrors is Agent Kay, who smiles as the forward thinking detective handles the first leg of the testing with ease. Yes, Edwards, soon to be Jay, will be a new breed of MiB, a less structured, man of action, but that is the what the aging organization needs. In the next test, the soldiers and Edwards are tasked with a room full of cardboard cutout aliens and one little girl, forced to decide which ones to shoot. Edwards shoots only the girl while the others splash bullets at the aliens. His explanation makes sense in the context of what he might be facing and once again, he demonstrates tremendous independent thinking, and instantly wins the position.
In a film that appears to be a simple sci-fi, alien invasion story, there is a lot more depth here than expected. These are smart characters in a smart story, and while there is a lot of fun to be had with the brilliant special effects and some very funny set pieces, it is its intelligence and ability to let audiences figure things out without holding their hands that makes Men in Black so great.
Lowell Cunningham (comic), Ed Solomon (screen story)
Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Linda Fiorentino, Rip Torn, Vincent D’Onofrio