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Men in Black

By Devin D. O'Leary

July 14, 1997:  Men in Black, the new sci-fi comedy from director Barry Sonnenfeld, is so enamored of its clever situation, its rib-tickling sight gags and its big-budget special effects that it forgets to actually tell a story. Most viewers probably won't mind.

Ever since The Addams Family, Sonnenfeld has been trying to remake Tim Burton's Beetlejuice. With MiB, he nearly succeeds. We've got the wild circus-tent trappings. We've got the crazy cartoon imagery. We've even got a soundtrack by Danny Elfman. The titular "Men" with the monochromatic haberdashery are Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, a couple of top-secret government agents working for a highly-funded, but clandestine organization in charge of stemming illegal (space) alien immigration. The script by Ed Solomon (Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure) is packed full of witty visual gags. Jones gets to blow several aliens into piles of purple goo and Smith gets to assist in a rather messy alien birth. You barely have time to digest one special effects-laden joke before the next one comes flying at you. Sonnenfeld has the budget and the clout now to order up lots of those expensive computer-generated effects from Industrial Light and Magic. You can tell he's a little too enamored of the tech stuff, though, from the film's opening credit sequence--a computer-animated dragonfly zips across a desert landscape for several minutes before meeting its fate on a semi's windshield. The sequence probably cost a cool million and exists for no reason other than Sonnenfeld had some cash to kill. Still, the effects are all very realistic and highly weird and are sure to make young audience members go "ooh" and "ahh" a whole bunch.

Unfortunately, MiB doesn't try as hard in the plot department. One day, a bad alien comes to Earth, and the Men in Black have to hunt him down. Smith and Jones act like a couple of cheap detectives, chasing him around New York City for a while. Eventually, they find him and shoot him into a pile of purple goo. The end. Clocking in at a mere 90 minutes, MiB doesn't really have time for anything else. Apparently the "plot" was considered so unimportant that producers greatly simplified it in post-production by redubbing and subtitling three scenes to eliminate a complicated backstory involving alien warfare. That's too bad. On the whole, Smith and Jones have a lot of fun with their eager young pup and wise old mentor stereotypes. Underrated character actor Vincent D'Onofrio (in full-on twitchy mode) is, to say the least, interesting to watch as the evil alien in a stolen human-skin suit. Linda Fiorentino is also on hand as a possible love interest, but she's little more than window dressing in the face of all the computer effects and cool gadgetry.

Apparently Smith and Jones have already signed on to do a sequel for Men in Black. Pretty ambitious considering the box office results on this one haven't even come in yet. I'm guessing that this will be a real case of the sequel being better than the original. Comfortable actors, fun script, good jokes. Just throw in a plot next time and I think they're on to something.

--Devin D. O'Leary

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