The Men in Black do not exist. You have heard of these people in your life — men in black suits who appear whenever something possibly mind-blowing happens and disappear right after — probably from a conspiracy theorist. This film, aptly named Men in Black, takes us behind the scenes and into the workplace of these suited men, who don’t deal with just anything, but aliens. Many, many aliens live on Earth, as you’ll learn in the film, and it’s the job of these men to keep tabs on the extra-terrestrial life.
The veteran and most respected man on the force is Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), who has no sense of humor and keeps a grim face regardless of the circumstances facing him. His partner retires in the first scene, and his replacement winds up being the energetic Agent J (Will Smith), an NYPD officer who decides to separate himself from society and become a Man in Black. Because he’s a rookie, he gets a lot of exposition directed at him, even if we (and the film) know it’s really for our benefit.
That turns out to be okay, actually, because the film knows how silly it is and embraces that. Even the stoic look of Tommy Lee Jones provides some humor, as director Barry Sonnenfeld knows exactly what to do with him in the role. The situations around Agent K make for some good-natured fun, and the interactions between Jones and Smith are some of the funniest parts of the film. Because of the two actors cast in these roles, the film becomes worth watching. Without them, it easily could have failed. Yes, even with millions of dollars in special effects surrounding the two leads, their exchanges are why Men in Black is worth seeing.
Don’t take that as a criticism of the visuals, because this is a gorgeous film. The mix of practical effects and CGI is effective — Steven Spielberg was an executive producer, so it’s likely he had a hand in this area — and the way that many of these aliens have been created is phenomenal. It’s not quite perfect, but it is, for the most part, convincing. And that’s all that’s needed in a semi-serious romp like this.
Men in Black works best when it’s focusing on the (mis)adventures of its two leads. Once the overarching plot gets mixed in — which involves saving the world from a “bug” alien (taking the form, primarily of Vincent D’Onofrio) — the film starts to slow down. I could watch minor journeys taken by our two Agents for hours and hours. The main plot feels forced in for people who need there to be something big put on the line. Couldn’t that wait for a sequel? Let Agent J get familiar first. Keeping the scale smaller would have kept the film restrained.
It also would have helped keep the ending from feeling really anticlimactic, mostly because of how rushed it is. The big battle against the aforementioned bug is far less impressive than it should be. If there hadn’t been a major villain built up from the midway point, we wouldn’t have expected such a big battle. If the film was kept smaller, it could have stayed within its means.
However, it’s still easily worth watching, thanks to the two leads, the special effects, and how smart the script is. There are a lot of references, jokes, and parodies scattered through Men in Black, and fans of movies, and science fiction movies in particular, will have a good time looking out for them. Even without the knowledge that fans of the genre will have, most people will get a good laugh or two from the movie. It’s simply funny. There are a good number of well-executed jokes, and they never become relied upon too heavily.
There are some fun gadgets and weapons, the most often used of which is something that can erase — and replace — memories. People who simply want to see something new will like watching this movie, because it seems like something new — either new to us or new in the context of the movie — seems to appear in every scene. This can be technology or alien in nature. Some of the designs for both come from very creative minds, and the way they’ve been brought to life in this movie is beautiful, even if some of them are very ugly.
Where Men in Black falls is in keeping its colorful supporting cast occupied. Receiving third billing is Linda Fiorentino, who is a love interest and then the princess who needs to be captured — and this all happens in the final third, with her only getting a few scenes, none of which are particularly impressive. Rip Torn is also in the film, playing Agent Z, the leader of the Men in Black. Torn is fun, but is also relegated firmly into a supporting role. This really is a film dominated by its leads. I’m mostly okay with that.
Men in Black is a very funny, action-packed science fiction film about a couple of men dealing with aliens for an hour and a half. It has wit, it has charm, it has a couple of very good leads, it has pretty visuals, it has weird looking aliens, and it needed to stay more reserved, as it didn’t have the time necessary to really make us feel like the world was in peril. Regardless, this is definitely a movie that’s worth seeing, and I had quite a good time while watching it.