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Men in Black

Men in Black(1997)

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teaser Men in Black (1997)

You know you're in for a different kind of science fiction comedy when the opening credits echo Pablo Ferro's opening titles for Dr. Strangelove (1963). Men in Black (1997) - not to be confused with the Three Stooges' Men in Black (1934) - is a blend of science fiction, buddy action thriller and Looney Tunes looniness. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, it starred Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith, and was based on the Aircel Comics (a subsidiary of Marvel) series The Men in Black, written by Lowell Cunningham. The much anticipated summer release was heavily marketed as a follow-up to Will Smith's huge success the previous summer in Independence Day (1996). And while it does again pit Smith against extraterrestrials, the two films could not be more different.

Independence Day was a global, DeMillian epic, with multiple characters and a slightly tongue-in-cheek approach despite its apocalyptic premise. Men in Black takes a much more sardonic tone regarding Earth's relationship with extraterrestrials, most of whom only want a hassle-free entry onto terra firma at customs. The focus of the story isn't really global. Most of the action takes place in Manhattan, the melting pot of inhumanity. While Independence Day and Starship Troopers (the other big sci-fi movie release in 1997) carried on the genre conventions of sci-fi films ranging from The War of the Worlds (1953) to Predator (1987), Men in Black takes many of its cues from movies like The French Connection (1971) and 48 Hrs. (1982).

Will Smith is James Darrel Edwards III, a New York City cop with physical prowess and street-wise sass. After impressively chasing down an elusive suspect that turns out to be an alien, James is recruited by "K" (the delightfully gruff Tommy Lee Jones), a veteran of an off-the-books government agency secretly policing the comings and goings of aliens on planet Earth. Nicknamed the "men in black" for their nondescript black suit and even more elusive agenda, K and the newly renamed "J" are assigned to recover a MacGuffin that's been stolen by an intergalactic terrorist (Vincent D'Onofrio). It seems the item is none other than a galaxy itself, and its theft has plunged humanity into the center of what's shaping up to become an interstellar wipeout, unless K and J can recover the galaxy and head off disaster for the blue marble planet sitting in the crossfire, the soon to be late, great planet Earth.

Men in Black was a box office smash, grossing over $250 million in the United States and over $326 million worldwide. Aside from the rapturous riches of financial success, it also inspired an animated children's television series, the sequel Men in Black II (2002) and a hit soundtrack album that featured a performance by star-cum-rapper Will Smith. The film was awarded and nominated for a plethora of accolades, including Oscar® nominations for Best Art Direction (Bo Welch) and Set Decoration (Cheryl Carasik) and Best Original Musical or Comedy Score for Danny Elfman. But the winner was make-up master Rick Baker who won the Best Makeup Academy Award for his terrific creature creations in Men in Black.

Much like the screwball comedies of the studio era, a strong stable of character actors make Men in Black an immensely enjoyable romp. Vincent D'Onofrio plays farmer Edgar, whose skin is appropriated by the villainous alien bug. D'Onofrio plays Edgar as if his body were rebelling with extreme Stranglovian prejudice. Even stranger, D'Onofrio reportedly based his vocalization of Edgar on filmmaker John Huston. Emmy winner and star of TV's Monk Tony Shalhoub is almost unrecognizable as the pawn shop proprietor Jack Jeebs. And Siobahn Fallon, an alum of "Saturday Night Live," gives Edgar's wife Beatrice a deadpan brilliance that makes the small role memorable and funny. Veteran actor and filmmaker Rip Torn is the no-nonsense head of MIB, Chief Zed. He tackles the surreal nature of his job in much the same way as K does, straight and matter-of-factly.

The script from writer Ed Solomon (one of the creators of the "Bill and Ted" movies) provides room for plenty of inside jokes and genre references, so much so that it would be a challenge to catch them all. Among the more humorous: one of the celebrity aliens spotted on MIB's wall of video surveillance monitors is the film's executive producer, Steven Spielberg. Among the more obscure: as he attempts to arrest an alien, K cites the alien's violation of the "Tycho Treaty"--Tycho was the crater on the Moon where the monolith was found in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Producer: Laurie MacDonald, Steven R. Molen, Walter F. Parkes, Graham Place, Steven Spielberg
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Screenplay: Ed Solomon; based on the comic by Lowell Cunningham
Cinematography: Donald Peterman
Film Editing: Jim Miller
Art Direction: Tom Duffield
Music: Danny Elfman
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones (Agent K), Will Smith (Agent J), Linda Fiorentino (Agent L), Vincent D'Onofrio (Edgar), Rip Torn (Chief Zed), Tony Shalhoub (Jack Jeebs).
C-98m. Letterboxed.

by Scott McGee

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