Monday, May 21, 2012
FILM REVIEW OF "MEN IN BLACK" (1997)
The idea for "Men in Black," the latest alien opus about cracking down on extraterrestrials hiding out on earth, conjures up a galaxy of surreal comic potential. If you're looking for a moderately entertaining, mega-budgeted, "Far Side" farce that vapor locks just shy of "Ghostbusters," "Men in Black" is your ticket. Even if this uneven outer limits comedy doesn't beam you up, its alleged million-dollar-per-minute special effects that infest the plot with a spawn of dorky aliens should impress you. Mind you, nothing in this delightful movie should give you nightmares. Despite its abundant sight-gags and eye-popping aliens, "Men in Black" frizzles because it relies on the familiar 'oxidize the earth' plot. "Men-In-Black" is a great looking movie hampered by a lame plot. Based on Lowell Cunningham's obscure but sensational Marvel comic from the early 1990s, the story sounds like "Dragnet" meets "Ghostbusters." The subversive but inventive Ed Solomon script struggles to keep a deadpan lid on its diabolical lunacy so its gags will appear twice as funny. Basically, it's the old idea of getting more mileage out of a joke by telling it as if you weren't aware of the humor.
The irreverent "Men in Black" (**1/2 out of ****) humor is so dry and sporadic that it sometimes fails to enthrall. Remember "Dragnet" with its "just the facts, m'am" deadpan humor? You know you're watching a comedy, and you even laugh at what you see. After all, you know these guys are straining to be hilarious. But they're not funny enough all the time to make you forget they're struggling so hard to make you laugh. Solomon wastes too much time integrating Will Smith's character into the action and not enough time incorporating Linda Fiorentino's character. The story never generates any genuine suspense, just a lot of pastel slime. The ending is outrageously implausible even by the wacky elastic standards of this fantasy. Nevertheless, "Men in Black" doesn't wear out its welcome.
Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith impersonate a couple of laced-strait Federal agents who work for a ultra-hush, hush agency known only as INS Division 6. Headquartered out of sight in Manhattan, INS 6 licenses, monitors, and polices all alien activity on Earth. According to the movie, about fifteen-hundred aliens reside on the planet in a state of apolitical harmony. Any alien critter that goes AWOL gets busted by these INS 6 dudes.
When we first meet J (Will Smith of "Hancock"), he is fleet-footed NYPD detective James Darrel Edwards, III, who has experienced a close encounter with a nimble dude in a green jacket. INS 6 recruits him because he nearly caught the alien. (If Will Smith doesn't watch out, he is going to be type-cast as the John Wayne of alien butt kickers.) INS 6 chief Zed (Rip Torn) teams J with veteran alien buster K (Tommy Lee Jones of "Rolling Thunder"). Even if you can tolerate the long expository build up, the story suffers again because these characters never develop the camaraderie of the "Ghostbusters." After a UFO crashes into his Chevrolet pick-up truck, a creepy redneck farmer, Edgar (Vincent D'Onofrio), goes gunning for the aliens. They're a bunch of murderously mutant cockroaches. They zap Edgar instead and take control of his body. (This scene recalls the Stephen King episode in the 1982 movie "Creepshow.") Edgar stumbles through the rest of the movie like a zombie. He's on a weird quest to kill two Arkillian aliens disguised as human and pinch a trinket hanging around a cat's neck that contains the galaxy. When he gets it, the Arkillian threat to atomize the planet unless our heroes can recover the bauble.
What we don't learn about the aliens, the filmmakers are happy to show us. Aliens galore infest "Men in Black." They resemble mutants sprung from the island of Dr. Seuss. None are particularly threatening, but some are ugly and squid-like. The scene where J assists a mother alien in birth is pretty funny, but it doesn't match the impact of the Billy Crystal calf delivery in "City Slickers." Juveniles will drool over the flashy gadgets. One device called a "neuralizer" resembles a tire gauge crossed with a pin-light. Our heroes use it to erase the short term memory of any spectators that they encounter in the line of duty. Remember, we're not supposed to know that the aliens walk among us. Our heroes don their cool looking Ray Bans to dampen the effect on them. The Ray Bans are already available in stores, but you'll probably have to wait for the chrome plated guns. Judging from its opening weekend haul of $50 million plus dollars, "Men in Black" should at least inspire a sequel as well as merchandising out the universe. There's a cartoon series already in the works.
Director Barry Sonnenfeld pulls out all stops. The hokey dragon-fly in the opening scene sets the smart aleck tone for the movie. One of the best scenes is the jewelry store confrontation which the movie makers have already given up in the previews of "Men in Black." The witty use of tabloid newspapers to tell the real truth is ironic, and the real story behind the New York's World Fair is a hoot! Sonnenfeld keeps the light weight action moving at light speed. Sometimes the movie zips by so quickly they you have trouble keeping up with it. But "Men in Black" lacks the bizarre finesse of Sonnenfeld's two "Adams Family" movies. No complaints about the casting. Tom Lee Jones of "The Fugitive" delivers the kind of stoic performance that would put Jack Webb to shame. Jones's grim-faced, buttoned-down expressions would be the envy of Detective Sergeant Friday. Jones proves himself a master comedian with impeccable timing again and again in "Men in Black." William Smith of "Independence Day" blends his streetwise, Ebonic, home boy charm with the sartorial elegance of his character as an interesting contrast to Jones' tight-lipped stooge. These co-stars work well together, except that their cardboard characters never evolve in the two frantic days covered in the movie.
"Men in Black" misfires more often than hits. You exit the movie theatre dazzled by the seamless special effects, but you may find that the dry, off-beat humor as memorable as a flash of light from a neutralizer.