Men in Black (1997)

Although makers of 1997’s MEN IN BLACK deny comparisons to MARS ATTACKS (which came out the previous year), the film itself quickly draws its own parallel during the opening title sequence: in macro-closeup, a whimsically cartoony dragonfly (rendered with CGI) flits down a road, accompanied by a bemused Danny Elfman score. And, like Tim Burton’s film, MIB takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to aliens on Earth. But there the comparison ends. Whereas Burton sympathies were entirely for disenfranchised outsiders, MIB is the ultimate insider fantasy, in which the clique group is so exclusive that no one else knows it exists. In this scheme of thinking, common people are just plain too stupid to deal with the truth, so they must be kept in ignorance, while the secret society goes about keeping them safe from alien invaders. And all of this is portrayed as a good thing.
What makes this condescending paternalism palatable is the sly sense of humor, the matter-of-fact deadpan tone treating every outrageous development as just the same old thing. The result, ironically, undermines any sense of reality, capturing a comic book fantasy tone far better than the overreaching but ultimately uninteresting production design of something like BATMAN AND ROBIN. Tommy Lee Jones is dead-on perfect as the world weary experienced agent, and Will Smith is the perfect comic foil as the new guy on the job; Rip Torn is also on target as the gruff boss, and Linda Fiorentino, though given little to do, does it well. Only the usually excellent Vincent D’Onofrio, as the villain, falls short — neither scary nor funny, just overblown and over-the-top. And the conclusion falters a bit, setting up the sequel (after training the new guy, Jones’ agent leaves the MIB team, replaced by Fiorentino’s coroner). Ultimately, this film isn’t quite as screamingly funny as its coming attractions trailer suggested, but it is an amiable enough piece of entertainment.

MEN IN BLACK(1997). Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. Screenplay by Ed Solomon, based on the comic book created by Lowell Cunningham. Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Linda Fiorentino, Rip Torn, Vincent D’Onofrio

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