Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Men In Black Wins Serious Credit For Originality And Plays Well Even Now!

The Good: Funny, Decent special effects, Character arcs, Story is fun and well-developed, DVD bonus features.
The Bad: Somewhat predictable.
The Basics: Funny and smartly using a diverse cast, Men In Black helps to cement the science fiction comedy in the collective unconscious!

For me, it is always fun to return to origins. So, for example, the very first big assignment I ever had reviewing was for my college newspaper when I pulled the assignment for the summer movie preview issue. I spent the day watching three movies back to back - Con Air, Men In Black, and Batman And Robin - and then reviewed them for the summer issue of the paper. It was exciting for me, but the day dragged and it has taken me until now to rewatch any of those movies. Recently, I took in Men In Black with my wife, as she has it in her permanent collection. I think, perhaps, I was a little too harsh on it when I reviewed it the first time back in college.

Men In Black is a rare science fiction comedy. And while there are plenty of science fiction movies that are funny, oftentimes they are not deliberately funny, they are laughed at more than laughed with. In fact, outside Men In Black, arguably the most successful science fiction comedies are Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (reviewed here!) and Galaxy Quest. Men In Black, however, did not seek to appeal to the niche audience, instead trying to hit the summer blockbuster audience and it was part of Will Smith's ascent to a-lister. In fact, this was probably the movie that finally cemented him as part of Hollywood's a-list, though he was not quite there when the movie was released, as evidenced by the fact that he is billed below Tommy Lee Jones for the credits.

The Earth has been invaded by aliens, not the least of which is a crazed alien trying to leave his designated visitation spot on Earth. When his ship crashes, agents Kay and D are sent in to clean up the mess and make sure Immigration forgets the incident ever happened. They are, as they always are, successful, though the mission leaves Kay without a partner. The incident is the first in a series of events which send known extraterrestrials living on Earth scurrying for the stars. This has a lot to do with the crash landing of a Bug who has taken the body of a human, Edgar, and whose presence on Earth is in pursuit of a galaxy hidden from an intergalactic war.

It is into this situation that a New York City cop, James Edwards, stumbles. Recruited by Kay when one of his perps flees in a most fantastic way and is connected to getting alien weaponry, James is enlisted into the Men In Black, a covert government agency which is responsible for keeping the truth about aliens quiet on Earth. Renamed Jay, James helps Kay find out the truth about the bug and hunt down Edgar. But soon, a menace from outer space threatens to destroy the world if they do not stop Edgar and recover the hidden galaxy quicker!

Men In Black is, first and foremost, a fun film. The premise is smart and original and it is executed with a panache that is not common. Will Smith plays with his sense of comedic timing and is benefited by a script which plays to his ironic voice. In fact, one of Smith’s most memorable lines and deliveries has to be when – as James – he lands on a tour bus and informs the people there “It just be raining black people in New York.” The script is filled with clever one-liners like that and the original set-up with Immigration finding themselves in possession of a real alien is instantly disarming.

As well, Men In Black is just smart enough not to push the romantic subplot between Jay and the coroner, Laurel, into cliché territory. The result is a buddy comedy that is very close to perfection. In fact, I checked my notes from my viewing over a decade ago and I noted in the theater that some of the effects were shaky. However, watching the movie on DVD on my HDTV, the effects seemed just fine.

And Men In Black has character development, even if it is somewhat predictable. Kay is an aging officer who has the experience, but has been pining for the love he left behind in order to become an effective agent of the Men In Black. So, while Kay has the experience, Jay has the energy and the pairing seems to be headed in a very specific direction. The film works because it is enjoyable in getting there, but it is not surprising and in that regard is somewhat less original than the set-up (much like situational comedies that use the same plots, but a different setting than we’ve seen before).

Men In Black also rocks because its supporting cast is exceptional. Supported by actors like Linda Fiorentino, Carel Struycken, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Rip Torn, Men In Black is a comedic success because it uses so many different talents so very well. In fact, Tony Shalhoub is only in the movie briefly, but he has a very memorable role as a pawn merchant Jack Jeebs. Even the usual problematic acting sources shine in the film, in this case the use of a dog whose role is clever and funny.

But Men In Black hinges upon the performances of Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith. Together, Jones and Smith shine and they have great on-screen chemistry which makes them a wonderful comedic pair. Jones has the depth and dry delivery to make the extraordinary seem plausible and Smith has the reactions and emotional range to make the film seem like it is still in touch with reality enough to make the viewer buy the premise. The banter between Jones and Smith alone is worth the price of admission.

On DVD, Men In Black comes loaded with bonus features. In addition to a commentary track which is as funny as the film, there are deleted scenes and informative featurettes. Most of the featurettes focus on special effects – puppeteering and computer-generated effects – but they are informative as well as entertaining.

For a film as short as Men In Black is, it certainly leaves and impression and anyone looking for a fantastic buddy comedy with a science fiction twist is likely to enjoy this film.

For other science fiction comedies, please check out my reviews of of:
Land Of The Lost
Year One
Charlie And The Chocolate Factory


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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