Saturday, July 6, 2013

Review: Men in Black (1997)

Men in Black (1997)

Men in Black is one of the most perfect summer blockbusters made within the last twenty-five years. It never wears out its welcome, it has great special effects that still hold up a decade and a half later, it's got a great sense of humor about itself and refuses to take itself too seriously, it's got amazing chemistry between its two leads, and it's just plain fun to watch. Sure, it doesn't have anything meaningful to say about the human condition (and even then, one could argue that its riffing on real-life conspiracy theories created many a UFOlogist), but not every movie has to be Schindler's List or even District 9. Much like with The Hangover, I can readily see why Men in Black's sequels copied its formula so much, because it works like a charm here.

The plot of the film, an adaptation of a series of comic books, is basically "what if the MIBs of alien/UFO/conspiracy lore were the good guys?" NYPD cop James Edwards (Will Smith) finds out about the existence of aliens living among us, and is given an offer to join the MIBs by an agent known only as K (Tommy Lee Jones), who was impressed with his performance in chasing down an alien. James joins, becomes Agent J, and must fight to save the world from a giant alien cockroach who's assumed the identity of a farmer named Edgar (Vincent D'Onofrio) and is trying to steal a valuable power source from an alien ambassador. The rest of the galaxy is willing to blow up Earth to prevent "Edgar" from getting this power source back to his home planet and starting a war, and it's up to the Men in Black, K and J, to squash this bug.

I must say, for a film made back in 1997 Men in Black has some truly astounding special effects. You can tell that, aside from the climax, this was mostly practical work, courtesy of special effects guru Rick Baker (the man responsible for so much of what was great about An American Werewolf in London), rather than the CGI that many blockbuster action films since (including this film's sequels) have often been saddled with. The creatures here all have a sense of weight to them, which helps them come off as more "real" than computer creations would have. Many of these guys often barely look humanoid at all, possessing a ton of creativity and style. Every little alien creature is filled with personality, even those who only get a single scene. When this film gets into the action, it is likewise great to watch, filled with humor and cool gadgets at every turn and often combining the two, like with J's "noisy cricket" pistol and the copious amounts of blue alien guts.

Speaking of humor, this film is laugh-out-loud hilarious, playing like a sci-fi version of a buddy-cop comedy like Lethal Weapon or last week's The Heat, right down to the "salt-n-pepper" pairing of the old, stoic veteran with the young wiseguy. Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith are those characters respectively, and not only did their casting afford the advertising department a lot of fun with billing the two G-men as "Mr. Jones" and "Mr. Smith", the two also clearly had just as much fun playing them. Jones improvised most of his dialogue here, forcing Smith to do the same to keep up with him, and the result is a great degree of natural, improv-esque banter that you wouldn't expect to see in a big summer tentpole movie. The dialogue is memorable and very quotable, relying on Smith's reactions to the new world of aliens around him and Jones' reactions to Smith in turn. Watching these two guys learn from one another, it felt like real growth as people and not just a hackneyed character arc. The rest of the cast has a hard time matching the dream team of Jones and Smith, but they do a good job as well, from Vincent D'Onofrio's comic weirdness as the giant bug baddie to Linda Fiorentino as one weird mortician to Tony Shalhoub from Monk as the nebbish pawn shop owner/alien weapons dealer who can regrow his head.

Score: 5 out of 5

This is a gold standard for action-comedies and summer blockbusters that stands the test of time as one of the best entries in either genre. A certified classic.

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