WFTB Score: 10/20
The plot: When a vacancy arises in a top-secret government agency, NYPD cop James Edwards is sceptical; but the hard evidence provided by Agent ‘K’ puts his head in a spin. Once suited and booted, there’s scarcely any time for initiation as a destructive ‘bug’ is bent on obtaining ‘The Galaxy’, an immensely powerful energy source. But will they work out what on Earth it is before its owners lose patience and blow up the whole planet?
James Edwards (Will Smith) is a novelty within the New York Police Department: he’s fit and determined to chase his quarry down at any cost, even if they are possessed with superhuman abilities and two sets of eyelids. His Extra-Terrestrial encounter leads him to a brief meeting with Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), working for the supposedly non-existent Division 6 of the INS, also known as the Men In Black, who look after intergalactic immigration for America and, by extension, the whole planet.
K ’flashy-things’ Edwards, wiping his memory, but K’s old partner has just called it a day and James seems to have the right qualities to replace him, even if the young cop’s smart talk and unfamiliarity with aliens occasionally threaten to get the better of him. With all traces of his existence wiped from the records, James duly becomes Agent J, charged with (to quote the catchy, Patrice Rushen-quoting theme tune) ‘protecting the Earth from the worst scum of the Universe.’ J & K are sent by grouchy unit head Z (Rip Torn) to find out what’s happened at a farmhouse in upstate New York, where the body of a farmer called Edgar (Vincent D’Onofrio) has been snatched by a vicious ‘bug’.
The alien is searching for a device called the Galaxy, guarded by an unconventional jeweller (Mike Nussbaum) – actually, as mortician Dr Laurel Weaver (Linda Fiorentino) finds out to her astonishment – a tiny Arquilian. The possibility that the Galaxy will fall into the wrong hands spooks the immigrant alien community, and concerns the Arquilians to the extent that they threaten to blow up the Earth, making J & K’s task all the more urgent. But Edgar proves to be a very big bug indeed, and J’s puny-looking weapon hardly seems up to the job.
It’s by no means a hard and fast rule, but by and large the more recent a WFTB review, the longer it is (whether I’ve become a more detailed reviewer or simply more verbose, you can decide): but I’ll try not to go on too long about Men in Black, since it’s not a film that demands an enormous amount of discussion. It simply is what it is, a competent comic-book adaptation-cum-Will Smith-vehicle, taking the concept of ’aliens’ in America and simply removing the quotation marks.
To this end, Smith – at the time one of the biggest stars on the planet – uses the mouthy anti-authoritarian attitude he developed on TV show The Fresh Prince of Bel Air to good effect, coolly playing the ingenu trying not to get weirded out by the bizarre work of Division 6. Jones, meanwhile, is simultaneously cussed and avuncular as K, the calm centre around which J and the alien-based mayhem, such as zany squid births, revolve (the film is driven by CGI, for sure, but not dominated by it). And back at base, Torn’s Z is suitably world-weary, inured to the life forms scuttling around him. D’Onofrio is great as Edgar, convincing with his shambling gait that the human body is all new to him, while Fiorentino is fine as the inevitable though largely unexplored potential love interest.
Actually, fifteen years after release, it’s surprising just how basic the movie is. Yes, there are some vaguely gross bits with skin-stretching, dead bodies, cockroaches and all manner of goo, but there’s nothing to unduly worry parents, and nothing that threatens to tax kids plotwise. Sonnenfeld briskly gets on with the action (morphing upside-down cars are cool), but also makes a movie that’s both superficial and predictable.
Okay, so K gets reflective when he (rather creepily) spies on his old love; but are we to believe that James Edwards has absolutely no ties, no loose ends he needs to deal with before embarking on his new job? A little bit of depth wouldn’t have gone amiss, and would have helped to both balance out Smith’s incessant throwaway remarks and bolster the run-of-the-mill conclusion. Also, if you’re at all observant about animal names, or have seen it before, you’ll be several steps ahead of the film most of the way.
It’s sad to see that [at the time of writing this review] Will Smith’s next major work is slated to be Men in Black 3. Not because there’s anything wrong with this film, or its sequel; but in movies like Ali he showed that not only could he act, he was obviously prepared to take on more taxing projects. Unfortunately, Smith hasn’t been entirely successful in shaking off his lippy, Fresh Prince persona with the general public, and that’s a shame. For while Men In Black is perfectly okay – a bit funny, kinda stylish, and packed with well-handled action – I can’t bring myself to wax lyrical about it.