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With: Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Linda Fiorentino, Rip Torn, Vincent D'Onofrio, Tony Shalhoub
Written by: Ed Solomon, based on the comic book by Lowell Cunningham
Directed by: Barry Sonnenfeld
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language and sci-fi violence
Running Time: 98
Date: 02/07/1997

Men in Black (1997)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Bug Shots

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Will Smith and aliens from outer space: two unfortunate similarities to the wildly successful and unforgivably insipid Independence Day. Fortunately, that's where it stops. Men in Black is an inspired comedy, in which the special effects are throwaway gags, and the destruction of the earth is not taken very seriously.

Tommy Lee Jones plays K, the veteran member of the MIB team, a top secret team that keeps tabs on alien activity on Earth. Will Smith becomes J, his new partner. Their job is to track down illegal aliens (extra-terrestrials). When the greenhorn J starts to get upset and personal, firing his top secret cricket-gun (don't ask) in public, Jones retorts, "the world is always about to get blown up by someone. The catch is that the people don't know about it." In fact, no one really blinks an eye that the world is about to be destroyed. (It makes me laugh to think of the cast of ID4 getting all upset over the bad aliens.) Jones gives exactly the right kind of performance here, adopting a perfectly deadpan tone. Smith is very funny, and a nice presence. The two actors have a gift for delivering perfect one-liners. They're a great team (easliy as good as Mel Gibson and Danny Glover).

There's a minor subplot in which we discover that Jones has a wife he's left behind in order to be in the top-secret business, but we're spared anything but a small, wordless scene.

The best gimmick is the memory-eraser, which the MIBs use to convince people they haven't seen anything. Linda Fiorentino (so good in The Last Seduction) plays a mortician who is constantly getting alien corpses dumped in her morgue and is constantly having her memory erased.

Every movie this summer seems to be using the same computer-generated special effects. They're pretty much the same effects that amazed all of us four years ago in Jurassic Park, but by now our eyes have been trained to spot them. Men in Black compensates by using the computer effects for comedy, and it works great.

The director is Barry Sonnenfeld, who began his career as an innovative cinematographer for the Coen brothers (he shot Blood Simple and Raising Arizona). His last film was the very funny and smart Get Shorty. Sonnenfeld and his writers seem to be among the few in Hollywood who know that audiences don't need every joke or idea explained to them in detail. Men in Black allows us to use our brains and imagination once in a while.

Men in Black is being marketed for the sci-fi alien crowd (it shows off most of its FX shots in the trailer) but it's mostly a comedy, and a very good one. I laughed more than a dozen times, and I can't remember the last time I did that in a new movie (especially a Hollywood movie). Congratulations to Tommy Lee Jones, who finds a great comic side to his arsenal, and to Will Smith, the only spark of life in Independence Day, who now is allowed to shine in brighter, smarter material.

Steven Spielberg executive produced.

In 2002, Columbia released a "Special Edition" DVD to coincide with this summer's disappointing sequel, but it was great to see the original again. Going in, it looks like a dumb movie but turns out to be remarkably clever -- thanks in part to Tommy Lee Jones' and Will Smith's chemistry together and their performances separately. The disc comes with lots of extras, but none as interesting or as fun as the film itself.

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