Men In Black Directed by Barry Sonnenfield starring Tommy Lee Jones '69, will Smith, Vincent d'Onofrio, Rip Torn at Sony Fresh Pond, Cheri

They're cool. So cool they can wear shades on the job and tote shiny gurns, license-free--and even use them at thier discretion, no questions asked. Heck, they can even obliterate people's memories with the blink of a red light. Who wouldn't want their job? Who else could they be but the Men in Black ("MiB" for short: beats "ID4" any day, doesn't it?), "protecting the Earth from the scum of the universe"? Who else could they be but Tommy Lee Jones '69 and Will Smith in one of the most hyped movies of the season.

The hype seems to be working: moviegoers are flocking in droves to see "Men in Black," and the film seems guaranteed to roll to bona fide blockbuster status. The audences could do worse: "MiB" offers quite a few laughs and a brand of screwball entertainment well off the beaten track of most summer fare. That said, it's not as good as you'd expect from the whoopee that critics are making over it. It's fairly funny--and not much else.

The humor of "MiB" depends heavily on satirically inverting the Roswell/ID$ concept of a government cover-up of alien visitations. The point here is covering up is the daily business of the Men in Black. To ensure that humans are kept in a state of tranquil ignorance. Jones coolly erases people's memories of encounters-of-the-third-kind simply by holding up a handy-dandy pen-shaped object called a "newralyzer." More importantly, the MiB serve as the planet's inter-terrestrial INS agents, regulating the movements of some 1500 aliens sojourning on Earth, concentrated mainly in NYC and mostly in human disguise. (Watch for the quick shot of monitored aliens-whom-you-always-suscpected-were-aliens: I believe I spied Sylvester Stallone and Newt Gingrich, among others.) Indeed, the movie gets off to a fine start with Jones ferreting out the "real" alien from a crew of Mexicans illegally crossing the border.

Jones plays the unflappable agent "k", who's apparently never met an E.T. that he couldn't place. Smith, a former NYPD cop, joins him as agent-in-training "J" after running down and almost bagging an alien offender. They're soon confronted with the mother of all diplomatic crises: when the big bad extraterrestrial Bug lands on Earth, assassinates a high-ranking alien and steals a galaxy (don't ask), the assassinated alien's compatriots threaten to destroy Earth if the galaxy isn't recovered.

So much for the plot, which is never the strength of a spoof. "MiB" is a patchwork of moments--here, definitely, the parts are greater than the whole. The movie's at its best when poking fun at the tabloid culture that thrives on alleged alien sightings. Supermarket tabloids are the real news sources for the MiB (quips Jones: "you can read the New York Times if you like, they sometimes get it right"). The story of a farm wife, Beatrice (appropriately illustrated with an adapted copy of "American Gothic"), who claims that an alien's wearning her husband Edgar's skin, turns out to be key and makes for a hoot of an interview with Jones and Smith. From a cheap postcard, the Bug tracks down the flying saucers as his ticket off the planet. And of course, the requisite Elvis joke.

There are also some amusing moments with a depty medical examiner (Linda Fiorentino), who keeps discovering strange corpses in the morgue only to be neuralyzed by Jones. The aliens themselves aren't especially original: most of them seem lifted from "Star Wars," and not enough is done with the concept of aliens in human disguise. The one exception is Vincent d'Onofrio, who demonstrates an unusual knack for phusical comedy (and an impressive makeup job) in playing the Bug disguised in Edgar's (decaying) skin. The slim-green exterminator's truck he drives around is enough to provoke a chuckle every time it appears. But after a while the gag gets old: one wishes the scriptwriters had given d'Onofrio something else to do besides walk like Frankenstein with a case of cerebral palsy and grunt threats in guttural tones. And the Bug, once it emerges, is a comic book nighmare. It's not any less ridiculous just because it's camp.

The real stars, of course, are Jones and Smith, who split the one-liners pretty evenly between them. Jones's deadpan is nicely offset by Smith's comical reaction to (and commentary on) every new experience. But this, too, gets old: their immunity to surprise gets to us. There's absolutely zero tenstion at any point, and the movie's non-stop flippancy brings it perilously clsoe to triviality.

Perhaps the best thing about "Men in Black"--besides Danny Elfman's deliciously campy score--is its ending sequence, in which Earth is visually reduced to an alien's plaything. This and occassional lines from Jones referring to Earth as a little backwater planet almost smack of Douglas Adams. Too bad he didn't have a hand in writing the script.

Recommended Articles