Men in Black

Did anything about that seem odd to you?

The success of this movie, creatively as much as commercially, is down to a triumph of casting. Of course, they had Will Smith, fresh off his breakthrough role in Independence Day, but that coup carries some hazards. Smith’s high-energy presence can dominate and unbalance a movie if allowed, requiring an actor of equal weight and with a complementary presence to even the scales. Thus, pairing Smith with the deadpan Tommy Lee Jones is half the key to the success of Men in Black.

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The other half is a clever story that borrows cliches from both science-fiction and cop buddy movies, throwing them together in a slick combination that felt a lot fresher than the ingredients had a right to be.

Men in Black’s chief conceit, that the shadowy figures who cover up UFO landings are just another bureaucracy, more like the Immigration Service than the CIA or the military, is rich with comic possibility, and the scripts mines it adroitly. This New York City is a hotbed of alien activity, but most of them are refugees, immigrants who are just trying to get by, and the Men in Black are just there to keep an eye on things.

At least that’s case until a giant cockroach from space lands on a farm, kills the farmer (Vincent D’Onfrio), and somehow crams itself inside the man’s skin. D’Onfrio gives a gonzo physical performance as a character who literally doesn’t fit inside his own body. The bug is after something called “The Galaxy” and not shy about leaving bodies in his wake. Another alien race is willing to destroy the Earthy to keep him from getting it.

Agent J (Smith) starts life as an NYPD (“’Nock Your Punk ass Down”) detective, whose encounter with an alien fugitive brings him to the attention of Agent K (Jones), who sees a potential Man in Black. Seriously, is it not perfect that the actors hired to play these anonymous figures, who officially don’t exist, are actually named “Smith” and “Jones?” I’m sure I’m not the first to make that observation, but I originally made it back in 1997. So there.

Newly minted Agent J is thrown right into the fire as the bug and the impending destruction of the Earth come to MiB’s attention. The bizarre situations, treated as just another day at the office for Agent K, give Smith ample room to stretch his comic gifts. What makes it work is having the taciturn Jones to bounce him off of. The script gives Jones a mouthful of sci-fi techno-speak, and he knocks it down in a deadpan monotone worthy of Jack Webb.

Smith and Jones are backed by a solid supporting cast, including Rip Torn as K’s boss, Zed, matching Jones gruff for gruff. Linda Fiorentino, the indie-film “It” girl of the ‘90s, plays the shapeliest coroner in the five burroughs, who deals with the most important bodies that the bug leaves in its wake.

There is nothing deep about any of this. The Men in Black are forced to leave behind contact with everyone in their lives, but we never know who, if anyone, J leaves behind. That doesn’t matter much in a film like this. Men in Black works for the same reason Ghostbusters did. They took a high-concept premise, combined it with a smart script and intelligent casting, and somehow the special effects didn’t get in the way of the humor.

Men in Black is the kind of movie that, when Hollywood gets it right, it does better than anything.

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