Retro Review: Men in Black

Director: Barry Sonnenfeld

Cast: Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Vincent D’Onofrio, Linda Fiorentino, Rip Torn

Plot: When a New York cop discovers a vast underground society of aliens living on Earth he gets recruited into the Men in Black, an agency of operatives who live without identities and monitor alien activity on the planet.

Review: It was pretty difficult to fully appreciate this nifty blend of science-fiction and comedy when it first arrived on our planet in 1997. In the years following Independence Day the concept of massive, wide-spread and invasive marketing for a studios tentpole blockbuster was starting to catch on and this was no more in evidence than with Men in Black. For an agency who operates entirely in secret we sure did hear about them non-stop. The first teaser trailer for the movie appeared a full year before the film was due to be released and featured only one shot from the finished film with the rest being a cobbled together montage.

Not even one goofy alien.

By the time the movie arrived in cinemas we had heard all of the funniest jokes and anything that the producers considered to be a ‘catchphrase’ hundreds upon hundreds of times. Under normal circumstances seeing something like the ‘Noisy Cricket’ being discharged for the first time would be brilliantly funny and unexpected. But it was in every trailer, and the trailer was at the the beginning of every movie, for months. It had lost its punch long before seeing it in the context of the film. It was especially disappointing when it turned out that pretty much every funny moment had been used at some point in the marketing – and when most of the jokes re based on the unexpected happening it’s not a good plan.

Taking the film on its own merit it is pretty damn good. The premise is fantastic, taking the urban legend of the ‘men in black’ who turn up in UFO stories and twisting it into a goofy science fiction film told from the point of view of the agents themselves. Will Smith acts as the viewers guide through this adventure, being the everyman who gets recruited into the organisation to be partnered with Agent K. Learning about the secret world of MIB this way is the right way to tell the story and the film makers do a great job of weaving together the complex underground world of the agents.

The real selling point is the banter between flippant and overly-helpful Agent J and the cold and stony Agent K (guess which is which). The two have genuine chemistry and develop a good rhythm, especially when playing good cop/bad cop with a hapless pawn shop owner. The jokes succeed not so much because of how they are written but how they are delivered. The art design contributes a great deal to the entertainment value of the movie with the stark black and white of the MIB and their headquarters being ten kinds of cool.

Pictured: cool.

This, sadly, does get balanced out by what, at times, can be some downright dull directing. As good as the principle characters are the rest of the cast aren’t on the same level. Fiorentino plays the same dull, monotone character that she plays in every film that she’s been in. D’Onofrio is fun but some lines really grate. The narrative gets a bit spotty when the main character doesn’t turn up until halfway through the first act. Aside from these quibbles it’s a damn fine movie with plenty of fun to be had.

That freaking rap song and music video loses it a star though.

Score: SEVEN outta TEN