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Friday Film Review: Men in Black

Men in Black (1997)
Genre: SF comedy
Grade: B+

We’re “them.” We’re “they.” We are the Men in Black.

I thought I’d throw another bromance onto the review heap. Not that Agent J and Dr. Laurel Weaver’s flirting isn’t enjoyable but the real strength of this film is how well Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith play off each other as their characters attempt to save the Earth.


Agent Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) has been helping to save the planet and monitor the aliens who live here for close to 35 years. When his partner reluctantly decides it’s time to retire, Kay and his boss Zed (Rip Torn) begin to test and audition replacements. James Edwards (Will Smith), an NYPD officer, caught Kay’s eye when he unknowingly ran down a cephalapoid while trying to make an arrest. Impressed with Edwards’ stamina and smarts, Kay lures him to the (hilarious) testing where Edwards proves he has what it takes as he thinks outside the box and make correct split second decisions. When he accepts, Edwards becomes J, the newest agent of the MIB.

And just in time as something has the alien population running scared and fleeing the planet. Turning to a major source of their intel, the tabloids, Kay and J interview a woman (Siobhan Fallon) who claims an alien stoled her husband Edgar’s (Vincent D’Onofrio) skin. Kay quickly realizes that a Bug has landed and is running loose in NYC. Heading to the morgue, they discover the M.E. Dr. Laurel Weaver (Linda Fiorentino) has two alien bodies there but the mystery of what the Bug in the Edgar suit wants only deepens. It takes a trip to interrogate Frank the pug to reveal what Kay and J have to find before the Bug does because if they can’t stop him, the Arquillians are going to kill us all.

I love MIB. MIB II not so much and I’m bracing myself for the third installment due out this Spring in the hope that it will rise to the level of this one. But the original movie is hard to top. From the opening credits of a dragonfly flitting through the Universe before ending up as splat on a windshield it’s a pretty much a wild, nonstop ride. There is a bit of boring exposition as Kay fills J in on the history of the MIB and knowledge of aliens on this planet but most of the rest of the running time isn’t wasted. Considering how much the plot was changed as it went along, the final result ends up fairly cohesive. It’s also a beautiful film to look at – the outside NYC scenes show off the beauty of the city while the inside sets are all 1960s space age curves.

The relationship of Kay and J carries the film. Smith and Jones have fabulous chemistry. They totally play off each other with Jones’ straight faced delivery complimenting Smith’s wisecracking facade. But J and Kay aren’t just Super Men with major firepower shown saving the world in a rain of special effects. They’re human. They get busted up, J cares about the effect of Kay’s memory messer-upper on the people who get flashed and he wants the cover stories which replace those peoples’ memories to be nice and – in the case of Edgar’s wife – empowering. Kay regrets the loss of his most recent partner and still loves the woman he had to leave behind all those years ago when he became an agent. You can see the weight of all his memories on his face. Yet, despite the need for them to toil in obscurity, there are the occasional nice moments such as when J helps deliver a bouncing, newborn baby….squid.

Rip Torn as Zed conveys gravitas in the face of the imminent destruction of the planet yet can still slide in a few zingers about the years of government training of the other candidates and how the MIB aren’t hosting an intergalactic kegger. Linda Fiorentino is lovely to look at and her character catches onto the situation quickly. I was delighted when she manages to not only save herself but also provides the final blast needed to rid the world of the Bug. One of my favorite tertiary characters is Beatrice the beaten down wife of Edgar. Fallon manages to make me laugh out loud without saying a word just from the expressions on her face.

But it’s Vincent D’Onofrio’s performance as the Bug which rulz. I can’t imagine how much work he had to put into pulling off the look and mannerisms of having a giant cockroach stuffed into his skin. The loping gait, the awkward way he poses his arms as he sits in the Zap-Em truck, the smash and grab techniques at the jewelry store and sidewalk post-card seller’s stand – even the way he talks…he makes me believe he’s something otherworldly. It’s also hilarious to watch how frustrated and pissed the Bug gets the longer he’s stuck in New York. Even Edgar’s cows don’t give him any respect.

The special effects still hold up fairly well with lots of exploding blue goo and Bug slime everywhere. I still think “the little guy in the big guy’s head” looks a little cheesy but the final sequences with the Bug are good. The “ingrate” worms who loaf around all day at the MIB headquarters are funny and the pug in a “I ♥ NY” T-shirt is cute. One of my favorite funny scenes is the way J discovers exactly what happens when he pushes the red button in the Ford P.O.S. as he and Kay are headed to Queens through the tunnel to the music of Elvis Presley.

The movie is supposed to be fun and breezy light entertainment and succeeds as such. Director Sonnenfeld keeps the story focused and the pace fast as it zips to a conclusion. The commentary tract is also interesting to listen to as he and Jones discuss what went into making the movie and seemingly have a good time remembering the whole process. Are we just an intergalactic Aggie in an alien game of marbles? Who knows? But no one better give me a flashie thing as I’d probably forget to put on my Ray Bans and would end up zapping myself to mental oblivion.

~Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

10 Comments

  1. Sandy James
    May 18, 2012 @ 05:24:31

    I love this movie!! I’m with you about MIBII. Not so good… Not sure how I feel about seeing MIBIII. Might give it a shot simply because I know it will be entertaining.

  2. Jayne
    May 18, 2012 @ 06:02:16

    @Sandy James: Yeah, I’m sure I’ll eventually watch MIBIII but I’ll go into it with lower expectations. MIBII just seemed like such a complete rehash of the original with little improvement or innovation.

  3. LeeF
    May 18, 2012 @ 07:59:18

    MIB makes such good use of Tommy Lee’s natural deadpan delivery and Will’s hip yet freaked out reactions- this is one I can watch over and over. SO many small details just crack me up.

  4. Lori
    May 18, 2012 @ 08:10:51

    When they’re taking the test and he pulls the table over to write on it and it screeches across the floor in agonizing misery: it gets me hysterical every time.

    Brilliantly funny movie.

  5. Jayne
    May 18, 2012 @ 08:37:01

    @Lori: That plus James trying to hold his broken pencil together to answer the test questions. And the looks on their faces as he explains why he shot the cutout of the little girl with her school books.

  6. Anachronist
    May 18, 2012 @ 08:40:48

    the pug in a “I ? NY” T-shirt is cute.

    It is actually one of my fav scenes in this movie – Tommy Lee Jones shaking that pug, trying to squeeze some info from it when anxious Smith assures the shocked passers-by: “this dog owes him money!”

  7. Keishon
    May 18, 2012 @ 09:19:28

    The scene (s) that sticks out for me when I think of this movie are two: one with Beatrice and I agree her facial expressions are very funny. Then there’s a moment of tenderness where Agent Kay is looking at a video of his wife who he hasn’t seen in years and Will Smith walks in on him and asks if she was his wife then proceeds to snidely say: ” it’s better to have loved than lost” and Agent Kay rounds on him and says quietly, “try it.” or something to that effect. I never saw the sequel and don’t plan to in the future. The first one was enough.

  8. Jeannie S.
    May 18, 2012 @ 10:59:45

    One of my favorite movies – I can watch this one over and over. I always find something new when I watch it too. And Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith are amazing together. I’m glad there’s another one coming out just so I can see them in another movie together. They play off each other so well.

  9. MarieC
    May 18, 2012 @ 16:30:27

    I love this film! Doesn’t matter that I have the DVD, anytime I see it on cable, I’ll watch it.

    Ditto on MIBII. Don’t know if I’m going to see MIBII (Josh Brolin kind of creeps me out for some reason).

  10. MarieC
    May 18, 2012 @ 16:30:56

    Sorry, meant ‘MIBIII’

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