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Believe it or not, it was twenty years ago this month when the first Men in Black hit theaters, cementing the idea that to have a summer blockbuster all you need was Will Smith. The family comedy was loosely based on the comic book series of the same name and featured some impressive visual effects and a fun story about an alien invasion and the two men who come to stop it. A huge box office hit, it spawned two sequels and a runaway Billboard track for Smith. Is it still great? Let’s find out.
THE STORY: Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, the film follows NYPD officer James Darrell Edwards III (Smith), who, while on the job one night, pursues a rather agile suspect up and into the Guggenheim Museum, earning the attention of Men in Black agent K (Tommy Lee Jones). Who are the Men in Black? Well, a secret former government agency who protect the Earth from intergalactic threats while simultaneously policing a small population of aliens peacefully living on the planet. Often with guns. Weird guns.
After some coaxing, and a clever testing procedure, James joins the organization, taking the name ‘J’ and donning the official black suit, for which, damn, he makes look good. He’s just in time too as a new threat has arrived, a bug creature that kills an upstate farmer named Edgar (Vincent D’Onofrio) and uses his skin as a disguise. That turns out to be far more funnier than it sounds. Can J and K save the world before an invasion threatens to destroy Earth? Well, there’s two sequels so, yeah, they kinda do, but it sure is fun watching them do it.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: There’s a lot to like about Men in Black, including it’s cartoony alien creatures and funny script (by Ed Solomon), but naturally, it’s the terrific chemistry between Smith and Jones that lead the charge, the two seemingly polar opposite actors finding exactly the right tone from the first time they meet to the final frame. They make us laugh and earn our trust throughout. That’s important.
However, pay attention to D’Onofrio because what he does is nothing short of awe-inspiring, his performance so good, he’d own this movie it weren’t for the sheer star power of Smith. I mean, seriously, watch this guy. This is arguably the greatest, most quirky supporting character in the history of cinema, and that’s recognizing all the goodness that is Brad Pitt in Twelve Monkeys and even John Lithgow‘s enormously whacked out Lord John Whorfin in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension! Edgar is a deliciously wonky character with a truly inspired bit of acting, earning the film’s best laughs.
A GREAT MOMENT: That said, and as many great moments that Edgar has on screen, there is a very funny scene without him that really has come to define Men in Black as a whole, a moment that sets firmly the comedic tone and characters. That of course is the baby alien gettin’ born moment.
The sequence begins with K and J pulling over a car that house two human-like aliens looking to leave their location, something that is illegal. While K steps away from the car to talk with the driver, J is left behind to tend to the woman in the backseat … who is pregnant. Very pregnant. Like, there’s water everywhere pregnant. And tentacles. Lots and lots of tentacles.
What follows is a perfectly shot moment that provides necessary exposition to the story while adding a layer of background comedy to keep it all moving with good speed. In lesser hands, this might have been the moment where it lost its audience, the absurdity and cartoony violence of it all perhaps enough to seem like too much, but that’s not the case here as Smith and company sell it like it’s gold. Great stuff.
THE TALLY: It takes a deft hand to mix sci-fi and comedy well without it becoming parody. Men in Black feels fresh, never making fun of the genre while still having a few laughs along the way. A genuinely clever script and some great work by the entire cast, including a skeptical Linda Fiorentino who brings some deadpan fun, keep this rocking straight to the big action finale.
This is one of those movies that never gets old, always makes you laugh and if you’ve never seen it, will still feel new. Excellent attention to detail and loads of great gags, Men in Black is the perfect summer blockbuster. It’s what to watch.