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‘Men in Black’ is the Best

What Hollywood can learn from this late 90s gem

Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. Copyright Columbia TriStar pictures
Men in Black. Copryight Columbia Tri Star Pictures

Men in Black is one of those films that has followed me around most of my life. I saw it at the cinema back when it came out with my Dad and Brother and we loved it. We also predicted they would make a sequel and promptly hashed out the plot for said follow up on the drive home. It was amusing to see, when the sequel did emerge five years later, that it was exactly as we had predicted. Since then there was an animated show that straddled the line between the source comic and the movie and the three filmed sequels. Let’s be kinder to those films than history and forget about them because the original is a strange and rare beast that is worth a closer look.

Men in Black is the story of ‘Jay’ a New York cop who is recruited by the ultra secret titular organisation, operating without oversight in the USA, who oversee and police the presence of extraterrestrial life on Earth. Based on a comic book it has all the hallmarks of such a fun and pulpy premise: snappy dialogue, exciting action and it never takes itself too seriously. Given the chemistry between its two leads, it is a buddy cop movie with aliens too. In short, it’s a bubblegum movie, not world-shattering but a fun, enjoyable ride. So why is it so damn good?!

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld who had already scored hits with the two Addams Family movies and Get Shorty and written by Ed Solomon who had written the two Bill & Ted movies but was also fresh from the hot mess that was the Super Mario Bros movie, Men in Black doesn’t necessarily scream the kind of pedigree from which you’d expect cinematic perfection but… well… it kind of is. I realise that is the kind of statement that needs qualifying but that’s why we’re here right? So to prove my point, I would urge you to go back and rewatch Men in Black and think about this: what would you take out? And more importantly, what would you add? Seriously. What is missing from this film? Because I would argue that there is nothing that could be added or removed to improve this film.

Men in Black is hands down one of my top 5 favourite screenplays. There is not an ounce of fat on it. The runtime is dead-on an hour and a half and not a second is wasted. Somehow, in that hour and a half, Solomon establishes two well-drawn, clearly defined protagonists with precise goals, an entire world within our own and the organisation that frames it, as well as a compelling plot with a ticking clock. All of that and it had (at the time) some genuinely surprising moments and laugh out loud gags. Combine this lean script with a director who did not hang around and you have probably one of the best paced movies I can remember. From minute one Men in Black is off to the races with an establishing premise that (again, at the time) kept you guessing and even when the central gag is revealed it doesn’t let up. But equally this doesn’t mean it doesn’t offer breathing room. The time given to the form-filling-in scene is the kind of long form skit only Mel Brooks would do, while giving over the better part of a minute of screen time without dialogue to allow for Agent J to consider his offer is not something I’ve seen any movie bother with in 20 years. K looking morosely at his ex-wife in silence tells us all we need to know. Edgar yelling at his wife, Beatrice, who we then see later laughing at the preposterous idea of an ‘Edgar suit’ are efficient ways of establishing ancillary characters that bigger budget modern movies would either over-indulge or ignore entirely today. Letting the birth of an alien play out in the back of frame while crucial plot dialogue is played up front is another excellent way of not letting exposition drag and keeping the pace up. At all points Men in Black is a movie that conveys what it needs to convey as quickly, as deeply and humorously as possible.

And this is before we’ve even talked about the cast. Though relatively small the characters in this movie just plain work and a large part of this is down to the casting. Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith weren’t just prime Hollywood real estate at the time, both an established tinseltown stalwart and ascendant mega-star respectively, the parts could have been written for them (they may have been, I don’t know). Jones’ deadpan delivery of lines like “We at the FBI do not have a sense of humour we are aware of” and “Elvis isn’t dead, he just went home” are still laugh-out-loud funny, while his humourless severity out John Wayne’s John Wayne at times. Will Smith’s I’m-going-to-take-this-Eddie-Murphy-schtick-and-run-with-it gambit pays off too and he maintains an endearing charm better than most of his work since. And given the thankless task of Basil Exposition, Linda Fiorentino still does something with it. Her lack of surprise pre or post Neuraliser to all the insanity is funny while her adaptability to each change of dynamic as the plot progresses reveals her to be more accomplished than such a story would require. After all, she calls the fact the body is a housing for an alien life-form before it is revealed and seems unperturbed after disintegrating a giant cockroach with a laser cannon. Rip Torn is just Rip Torn and I’m not sure if he wasn’t just filmed at home then edited in later. And then there’s D’Onofrio. He is SO good in this film I didn’t even realise this was the same guy who was in Daredevil and Full Metal Jacket until about three years ago. His erratic movements, gurning expressions and gargly voice, combined with the ever deteriorating necrotic make-up, make for one of the most enjoyable screen villains from an era when Alan Rickman and Gary Oldman were firing on all cylinders. Even bit parts like Jeebs, Beatrice and Reggie appear as full, well-realised characters with identifiable voices, clothes and perspectives. For such a slight film the casting, top to bottom, is perfect.

Then there’s the special effects. At a time when CGI was present but still a little impractical, the end of the 90s was a time when it was cheaper, quicker and easier to use practical effects and stunts and then embellish with CGI. The longest CGI shot is the opening credit sequence and that’s just a bug. Yes there’s CGI tentacles and a giant, human-devouring cockroach but on the whole a considerable proportion of the special FX here are practical. The aliens are mostly puppets, explosions are real, stunts — like someone being blown through a windscreen, ass first, or dropped twenty feet from a ladder into a real, no-foolin’ tree — are real and not edited around but shot to give the best impact, and even the climactic ship crash is an excellent piece of model work. The most overt CGI is the bug at the end, which, to be frank, is better than some of the big budget creatures in movies of the last few years. A lot of this is largely down to a production design that was allowed to have some imagination back then as opposed to following a trend. More Mos Eisley Cantina than Ten Forward (NERD JOKE). The best compliment that can be payed to Men in Black’s model of FX is that even rewatching it today, none of it takes you out of the movie. And while the CGI is often not ‘life like’, it doesn’t matter, it’s still convincing within the world of the film.

But beyond any of this, Men in Black is just a lot smarter than you remember. No seriously. In addition to all of the above there’s a subtle thread of cynicism running through it, a bit of medicine hidden in the sugar. The film starts with the two men in black telling the INS troopers to put their dicks back in their pants, then sends the migrants on their way, with a ‘Welcome to America’ no less. This opening chimes with the overall sentiment of welcoming travellers and migrants the film seems to agree with. It’s true the men in black police and monitor the aliens but the fact is aliens are allowed to be here on earth and are depicted as a diverse group with social utility. This reveals its nineties, pre-9/11 optimism around such things but also how moods have changed towards migrants. An alien terrorist arrives and, guess what? MiB don’t immediately blame all the other aliens. There’s also a pretty sneering contempt for sections of the American establishment and authority that is weirdly radical 25 years later. Z telling a bunch of military officers that their failings are “exactly what we’ve come to expect from years of government training”, or that the FBI have no sense of humour, or that Cops are “soggy around the middle” and could do with “five minutes on a stair master”, all adds up to a sense that, even in the halcyon sun-kissed era of the 90s there was doubt and mistrust over the current models of state organisation. The film’s solution, that a private corporation being allowed to run things and physically assault these migrants for information, is somewhat problematic to say the least but the criticisms the film makes haven’t gone away. There’s also just some really smart lines in this movie. Lines you don’t get in movies of late. Weaver pointing out how stupid J is for being so dumbfounded by sexual forwardness, the explanation of patents funding the MiB project and K’s speech about mob mentality and received wisdom are still moments I come back to in my head. All of which are breezed past, lost in the shuffle of so many memorable lines and fun action. Men in Black does not patronise its audience. Ever. Instead it understands what it is and how it is going to tell its story better than any film of its genre since. Without any sense of grandeur or pomp that comes with the gigantic budget of similarly positioned films today, it’s a film that can be as funny, irreverent and subversive as it likes while also delivering an enjoyable, perfectly paced action comedy that would go on to be a hit and spawn a seemingly endless barrage of dreadful sequels that came out years later. A model that, in hindsight, was common of late 90s standalone movies with Austin Powers, The Mummy, The Matrix and Scream suffering similar fates.

It isn’t without its flaws, however. It has dated, but not in the ways these things usually do. A lot of its politics are about where they need to be, even for todays “woke Disney” model, it is mainly Will Smith’s fashions that give it away. Also, given that so much of this was a delightful surprise at time of release, its influence means a lot of the gags and even the central conceit don’t have the same bite to modern, comic-book-saturated, palettes. The Pug as the alien was a genuine surprise that warranted a roar of laughter in the cinema back then, while the reveal of the tiny galaxy was also an honest surprise, along with the whole concept of MiB in general but, like The Matrix two years later, these kind of surprises are now nudge-nudge-wink-wink-to-the-camera-Joss-Whedon-esque references today and it’s hard to communicate that level of freshness felt on a first viewing back then. Also, as charming as Will Smith is, his inexperience does show occasionally when compared with Jones. Some of his dramatic readings (“what the hell are you”) are wince-inducingly dry and are jarring amongst his fast-talking, quick-fire jokes. Also, for a British audience the final gag doesn’t land as no one knows who Dennis Rodman is here. But such quibbles are minor and are the imperfections that make the whole a more perfect image.

Men in Black is well remembered and holds high-scores on those useless review aggregator stealth-marketing websites but there’s far more to it than the popcorn B-movie it purports to be. It’s a lesson in how to make a good genre film. This is the sort of movie Marvel have been trying, and failing, to make for a decade or more. They have come close, Iron Man, Avengers and the first two thirds of Winter Soldier almost match MiB’s level of immaculate pacing but not quite. Given the inflated budgets, egos and corporate interests at stake in these gargantuan franchises that are the all consuming box office monsters we know and (told to) love, similarly pitched movies now don’t have room to be as canny, wry or cynical as Men in Black and certainly aren’t allowed to be as weird or as different (yet again, at the time). I’m sure fans will scream Guardians of the Galaxy at the screen and yes, that was a great movie too… but there’s still a lot you could cut from it. MiB’s strength is its pace and it’s a lesson almost every major studio should learn. It is a film full of excitement, mystery and action, as well as good character detail, humour and commentary. And it’s an hour and a half long. An hour and a half that allows time for a squabbling couple, a pining lover, an admiring look at a newborn and to look up at the stars. Because we never just look anymore…

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Leo Cookman

Leo Cookman

Peripatetic Writer analysing Pop Culture. “Time’s Lie” out now from Zero Books.

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