"You can have my gun when you pry it from my cold dead fingers,"
boldly proclaims a shotgun-carrying redneck named Edgar (Vincent
D'Onofrio) to the alien who had the audacity to trash his pickup truck
by landing a flying saucer in his yard. "Your proposal is accepted,"
replies the alien just before he fries poor Edgar's tiny brain.
Yes, it's the hit of the summer, MEN IN BLACK, which is everything
that last year's MARS ATTACKS! should have been, but wasn't.
The legal vs. illegal alien controversy from today's news
headlines continues in this dead serious comedy about a different class
of aliens, those from outer space. In some careful casting, Tommy Lee
Jones is marvelous as seasoned agent K of Division 6. Don't be
surprised if you haven't heard of Division 6 of the Immigration and
Naturalization Services, neither have any of the "normal" agents of the
INS in this film.
The following may come as a shock to you, it did to James Edwards,
so you may want to sit down. There are over 1,500 aliens living on
earth. Now, not to worry, since most of them are "hard working types
trying to make a living." But then there are those few renegades and
misfits. Division 6 was set up to keep all the aliens under control
and keep knowledge of their existence away from you and me, lest we
become frightened. (Personally, I would not be scared if I knew that
creatures looking like members of the STAR WARS cantina, but more
gooey, were infesting our planet. But you might panic.)
Rich Baker's work designing the aliens certainly deserves Oscar
consideration for his mixture of silliness and function -- sort of a
retro science fiction look for the 90s. Mary E. Vogt's costumes for
the agents, think 60s James Bond suave with tapered suits, thin ties,
and plain Ray Ban sunglasses -- all in black, provide the perfect
complement to the aliens' kookiness.
James Edwards is an NYPD cop until K recruits him into the program
as agent J. Will Smith, who was one of the best things about last
summer's smash hit INDEPENDENCE DAY, plays J with a sweet naivete.
When J is given a pip-squeak of a gun, he complains that he wants a big
one like K's. In one of my son's favorite scenes, J's first use of the
weapon knocks him back ten yards and blows an enormous hole across from
Ed Solomon's script has a stream of gags, most of which work,
thanks to Barry Sonnenfeld's direction. J is shown a wall of
television screens which are used to monitor such aliens as Sylvester
Stallone, Steven Spielberg, Newt Gingrich, and others. It even has J's
third grade teacher, whom he always suspected was from Venus (although
it turned out to be Jupiter).
The story, which is based on a Lowell Cunningham comic book,
teaches us valuable lessons. Perhaps the most instructive is that we
learn that Division 6 uses the hot sheets, you know them as the
tabloids, as research material. All of those alien sightings blazed
across their headlines are actually true!
The sincerity with which the actors approach their material makes
the movie. While posing as an FBI agent, K explains in no uncertain
terms that, "We here at the FBI, do not have a sense of humor we are
MEN IN BLACK is one of the few films that would be better if it
were longer. Editor Jim Miller has simply chopped too much. The
resulting movie feels like they were scared that we would grow tired if
shown too much of it, so they trimmed out every non-essential scene.
The result is a story that jerks along as if key scenes are missing.
Linda Fiorentino, who gave a brilliant and rock hard performance
in THE LAST SEDUCTION, plays the underwritten role of the medical
examiner, Dr. Laurel Weaver. (But as everyone is probably now aware,
we are likely to see a lot more of her as agent L in MEN IN BLACK 2.)
Fiorentino is bursting with talent but has been unable, until now
perhaps, to land a high profile part. She has the abilities to be a
star, but stardom has managed to elude her thus far. I hope some
producer, with the right, big part, discovers her and takes a risk on
her in a starring role.
Oh yes, along the way there is the outline of a plot. ("Deliver
the galaxy or the earth will be destroyed," warns a battleship from
space so war must be eminent.) Still, you are likely to have trouble
following the plot even if you take good notes. On the other hand, who
cares? Much better to sit back and enjoy such morsels as Edgar's.
After being transformed into an alien, he looks at the luscious Dr.
Weaver. "You're coming with me," he informs her. "It's a long trip.
I'll need a snack."
MEN IN BLACK runs 1:38. It is rated PG-13 for some mild
profanities and sci-fi violence. The film should be fine for most kids
around 8 and up. My son Jeffrey, age 8, got pretty scared and even
talked about leaving at times, but ended up liking the show. His
favorite monsters were the one in the beginning whom K orders, "put up
your arms and all your flippers," and the big cockroach at the end. I
thought the show was funny and imaginative so I am recommending it and
giving it ***.
Copyright © 2000 Steve Rhodes