Men in Black (M, 97mins) Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld ****
Thanks to The X-Files and movies like Independence Day, by the time 1997 came along, it was hard not to associate names like Roswell and Area 51 with Earth-based alien activity.
Of course, most Hollywood offerings followed the H.G Wells’ template of first contact involving invading extra-terrestrials intent only on blowing us away by whatever means necessary, or, if they were already here and/or more benign, there was usually a US Government cover-up involving either the CIA or the FBI.
It’s the latter conceit – and paranoia – that Barry Sonnenfeld’s action-comedy tried to exploit.
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Based on a comic-book series which debuted in 1990, it centres around a secret organisation charged with looking after alien affairs on Earth. As well as their base providing the single intergalactic immigration approved point of entry, they also use containment measures to maintain the mystery and force any off-worlders to assume human identity.
Despite sounding more like a breakfast cereal, Special Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) has been with the “Men in Black” since the beginning, having left a normal life behind to dedicate himself to the cause. An expert in all areas, he helps train every new recruit.
On one of his semi-regular clean-up missions, he encounters a young New York cop – James Darrell Edwards III (Will Smith) – he believes would be a suitable applicant, despite a little problem with authority.
However, while still bedding in their relationship, newly formed partnership of Agents J and K immediately find themselves facing the greatest crisis in the Men in Black’s history.
With little warning, all aliens are heading for Earth’s nearest exit because an ambassador has been killed by what appears to be a gigantic “cockroach”. Now his family wants answers – and the universe he was carrying – or they’ll blow the planet away.
This is a sci-fi action-comedy that’s a rare commodity – it’s both funny and full of terrific set-pieces. In fact, Sonnenfeld (who had already managed to strike gold with both Get Shorty and The Addams Family earlier in the decade) marries the two so successfully here that you’ll be admiring the special-effects (which still look impressive 25 years on) only when you’ve managed to stop laughing from the one-liners.
This is also a rare comic-book movie where you’ll come to the end of it wanting more.
While the aliens comes flippered, polypoid, micro-sized, dog-shaped and, in some cases, with a bad attitude, it’s the combination of the swaggering Smith (then fresh off punching aliens in Independence Day) and the deadpan Jones that really sells the sizzle on what is admittedly a rather superficial story.
Smith’s smart-mouth routine complements Lee Jones’ laconic style to great effect, which made them the best law enforcement team since Lethal Weapon’s Gibson and Glover and the template for later duos like Tucker and Chan and Hart and Johnson. They do get some solid support in this first outing from Linda Fiorentino (The Last Seduction) as a vampy pathologist and the always reliable Vincent D’Onofrio (Full Metal Jacket) as the human form of “the big bad”.
Still as snappy as black suit and as sharp as a pair of Raybans, Men in Black is one of the great crowdpleasers of the ‘90s – that decade’s equivalent to Ghostbusters.
Men in Black is now available to stream on Netflix and arrives on Amazon Prime Video on April 13.