UFOs. Aliens. Slime. Will Smith. What more can you ask for? In
the case of last year's Independence Day, a self-awareness of its inherent
ridiculousness would have helped. That problem does not befall Smith's
latest bout with creatures from outer space, Barry Sonnenfeld's witty and
fun sci-fi-action-comedy Men in Black.
In this adaptation of Lowell Cunningham's obscure Marvel/Malibu
comic, Smith stars as a New York cop who is recruited by mysterious Agent K
(Tommy Lee Jones) into the ultrasecret underground group known as the Men in
Black, which overlook intergalactic relations. It is up to Agent K and the
newly christened Agent J to prevent an alien bug disguised as a farmer
(Vincent D'Onofrio) from stealing a galaxy and thereby causing an
interplanetary war and, in turn, the destruction of earth.
If this sounds a tad confusing to you, you're not alone. MiB's
biggest problem is its story--the primary plot cooked up by screenwriter Ed
Solomon is introduced fairly late in the game and never completely adds up
(just what is the deal with the bag of marbles at the end?). But by the
time the nominal plot takes center stage, the film has already won you over
with the script's witty one-liners, self-effacing sense of humor, and bashes
at pop culture (Sylvester Stallone is skewered in one of the more inspired
gags); and its imaginative production design (by Bo Welch) and visual
effects (supervised by Eric Brevig). Most impressive, however, are the
alien makeup effects designed by Rick Baker. The creatures look like
exactly that--living, breathing alien creatures and not animatronic puppets.
Especially convincing is an alien infant whom J delivers; slinky, squidlike,
and covered in slime, the expressive baby alien succeeds in doing what the
best human infants do onscreen--look cute and elicit "aw"s.
As impressive a technical achievement MiB is, it would not have
worked without a strong lead duo, and Jones and Smith make a great team.
Smith's natural, infectious ebullience plays off well against the stoic
Jones, who is at his deadpan best, engaging in some ridiculous situations
with the straightest of faces. It is one thing to wear a straight face
while having a heated discussion with an uncooperative dog, but it's quite a
whole other level of achievement to do that and convincingly appear to treat
the situation with the gravest of seriousness. Jones's K never shakes off
his grim face even when he is joking, making his performance that much more
effective and funny. D'Onofrio has some great slapstick moments as the
insect who hasn't quite got the hang of wearing a human skin suit, and
though she's underused, Linda Fiorentino, as coroner Dr. Laurel Weaver, fits
quite snugly with the team of Jones and Smith.
Men in Black is certain not to reach the stratospheric box office
heights of Smith's bountiful bout with aliens last summer, but in shedding
the self-importance and jingoism of the two-hour-plus ID4 and taking on a
most welcome self-aware sense of humor, the lean, mean, 98-minute MiB is not
just a better film, it's also a lot more fun.