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Barry Sonnenfeld directs an all-too-brief UFO romp with Men In Black.

By Coury Turczyn

July 14, 1997:  All across the land, dead cows are missing their rectums. In the far reaches of distant ranches, they lay on their sides, blankly gazing up at the sky in a rigor mortis grimace, as if wondering: "Why the heck did this happen to me?" And all we can say is: aliens. Extraterrestrials. Little green men. They've got an agenda and, unfortunately, it involves procuring lots and lots of cow rectums. Who are we to understand why?

Likewise, it's difficult to comprehend the sudden wave of UFO mania engulfing every iota of our popular culture. What was once a charming puzzle has become an unending maze of alien autopsies, crop circles, human abductions, government cover-ups, and FOX-TV specials. It used to be fun to hear tales of UFO sightings; now it's become a deadly serious topic for many people who've made it their personal mission to pursue the "truth" (even if it requires suicide pacts). When a few hundred-thousand folks show up in Roswell, New Mexico to celebrate the supposed crash of a flying saucer, you know that our cultural fixation with UFOs has eclipsed its amusing beginnings. Now it's Serious Business.

The only logical human reaction to such cosmically unexplainable phenomenon is to laugh--which, thankfully, director Barry Sonnenfeld does with Men In Black. I'm not sure if local comic book scribe Lowell Cunningham intended his concept to be a straight-ahead comedy, but it's all for the good. Men In Black provides much-needed comic relief from all of our earnest UFO mytho-logizing with an entertaining conceit: not only are aliens nothing to get worked up over, they can actually be quite annoying--so much so that we have an entire government agency to keep them in line. It's a wonderful scenario, buoyed by great casting, cool production design, and a witty script...all which seem underutilized in a weak storyline that lasts only a little over 90 minutes.

Sonnenfeld, a former cinematographer (he was director of photography on several Coen brothers flicks), has a keen visual sense (as seen in the Addams Family movies and his last film, Get Shorty) that reaches a new peak with Men In Black. With production designer Bo Welch, he's cast the MIB organization as a kind of futuristic SWAT team--from the early '60s. Ever attired in black suits, skinny ties, and Ray-Bans, they travel to UFO problem areas in big black sedans, looking like wayward cast members of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Their mission is to not only apprehend misbehaving aliens (there are 1,500 of them here at any given time, mostly in Manhattan) but to keep their presence on Earth a secret. They oversee this massive task from MIB HQ, located in what appears to be a giant vent room for the Holland Tunnel in New York City--it's a delight of early '60s futurism, with egg- shaped chairs, white ovoid desks, and spacey wall hangings.


All this isn't merely a stylish affectation, however--it actually works with the story. The MIB, we later learn, developed its mission after some intergalactic refugees touched down outside NYC in 1961. In fact, the 1964 World's Fair--with its space travel theme--was a "cover" to secrete the aliens' flying saucers as attractions. Since then, the Earth has become an apolitical zone for alien refugees, and the ultra-secret MIB (funded by holding patents on alien technology like Velcro) makes sure they integrate smoothly into human society. The Men In Black just never updated their "look."

This is all highly clever stuff, well thought out, and entertainingly executed. Why, then, does Sonnenfeld never really exploit it? He and screenwriter Ed Solomon smoothly introduce this nifty scenario, and then don't really take it very far. Our main characters, agents Jay (Will Smith) and Kay (Tommy Lee Jones), mostly involve themselves with teaching newcomer Jay the ropes, which is all entertaining stuff. Smith is a natural at appearing cocky and unsure of himself all at once, while Jones has impeccable timing as his stone-faced straightman. They have a good buddy cop chemistry, and are a pleasure to watch. But what comes after that?

What we get is a rather simplistic mission involving a bug-like alien, Edgar (Vincent D'Onofrio with a surprisingly comic touch) who has assassinated an alien ambassador, ticking off its countrymen who threaten to blow up the Earth unless the MIB apprehend Edgar pronto. The result is pretty obvious, and accomplished very easily and quickly by our heroes. Ho-hum.

What we don't get is the pleasure of seeing all those cool elements we were introduced to at work: we see lots of aliens, but don't get to really meet any of them; we see lots of neato MIB equipment, but don't get to see much of it in action; we do get to meet some great character actors (Rip Torn and Linda Fiorentino) but don't get to see them do much acting. And the action sequences are sparse--couldn't we at least see Jay and Kay do a few more missions before the "grand" finale? And did the finale have to be so simplistic?

After that fizzy introduction to Men In Black's "universe," the rest of its story falls dissappointingly flat. That said, its pure inventiveness makes Men In Black the best summer movie this year, and Smith's charisma does indeed carry the day; he's not a fluke. But by the movie's end, you'll still be left wanting more...so here's looking forward to that sequel.

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