“Who’s the man, huh?” In last summer’s No. 1 blockbuster, Independence Day, Will Smith’s flyboy asked that question just before slamming his fist into a slimy alien who gave him some attitude, acting all big and bad. In this summer’s No. 1 joy ride, Men in Black — director Barry Sonnenfeld loads the bases with action, fantasy and laughs, and hits a grand slam — there’s no need to ask the question: Will Smith is indisputably the man.
Cool in ID4, Smith is even cooler in MIB. As James Darrell Edwards III, a New York street cop recruited by the feds to chase visitors from other planets, Smith — a jaunty, jug-eared charmer — turns in a smashing star performance and helps whip Men in Black into more fun than anything in the galaxy. Maybe it does take luck for a former rapper (with partner DJ Jazzy Jeff) and TV personality (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) to land an epic film for two summers running. It also takes talent to steal every scene you’re in, especially if you’re 28 years old and in the company of experts.
Men in Black, a playfully hip and hilarious comedy about an unofficial government agency of the same name that protects the Earth from the scum of the universe, teams Smith with the formidable Tommy Lee Jones. Not the overbearing Jones of Batman Forever who tried to out-ham Jim Carrey. This is Jones at his best: terse, coiled, fiercely funny. Instead of competing, Jones complements Smith’s endearing sass with his own distinctively witty growl. Sonnenfeld deftly orchestrates the intricate two-part harmony, and Smith and Jones — a powerhouse comic pair — make it all look easy.
You’ll marvel at the creature effects devised by Industrial Light and Magic and makeup whiz Rick Baker. The wallop would be far less, of course, if Sonnenfeld and screenwriter Ed Solomon hadn’t adapted the Lowell Cunningham comic-book series, The Men in Black, with an eye to keeping the flights of fancy grounded in character. Smith’s cop is as cynical as we are when Jones’ Agent Kay — a veteran at MIB — tells him that there are thousands of aliens walking around on our planet. “Luckily,” says Agent Kay, “most of them are concentrated in Manhattan.” The Big Apple is the location of MIB’s secret headquarters, run by a bossman played with gleeful bluster by Rip Torn. It is inside this Ellis Island for ETs that visiting species are processed for entry. A crafty joke involves aliens in human form being monitored for mischief on a giant video screen. I caught TV weatherman Al Roker and Steven Spielberg, MIB‘s executive producer, among the suspects. At least I think I did. Stay alert. At 90 minutes and $90 million (a mil a minute!), Men in Black keeps its jokes — sly and silly — coming at hyperspeed.
Another clever notion shows MIB picking up leads on aliens from the tabloids. Agents cover up sightings by zapping witnesses with a pen that erases memories. How does Sonnenfeld persuade us to buy into this X-Files on giggle gas? By piling on realistic details. Production designer Bo Welch fits the MIB offices with a retro look out of the 1960s, when the division was founded. Black suits, ties and shades are standard issue, a fact that even Smith’s fashion-conscious cop — now known as Agent Jay — twigs to in style. Putting on his Ray-Bans, Agent Jay cracks wise to Agent Kay: “You know the difference between you and me? I make this look good.”
That he does. Smith wears this role like a second skin. Agent Jay is freaked out at first. That’ll happen when you interrogate a suspect with tentacles or blow the head off a man who then grows a new one or get wrapped up in a baby alien’s giant tail and tossed around like a wet rag in spin dry. There is also a plot to destroy the planet by a terrorist bug that squeezes into the body of a farmer (Vincent D’Onofrio in a pow performance that gives new meaning to the phrase “getting inside a character”).
Agent Jay is ready to roll with his new job, although it requires erasing his fingerprints and giving up his life as a private citizen. That makes it hard when he meets Dr. Laurel Weaver (Linda Fiorentino), the pretty deputy medical examiner. Credit Smith for never overplaying his hand. He knows how to come in gently and finesse a scene that could have been overwhelmed by the hardware. Admittedly, the hardware is amazing, especially a tiny gun called the noisy cricket. Smith does a priceless double take when one shot from the cricket nearly decimates a city block.
Inventively photographed by Don Peterman, the film takes on the aura of a live-action cartoon. There’s the rub. Sonnenfeld has been ragged on for being too cartoonish in his direction of The Addams Family, Addams Family Values and the great Get Shorty. Bull. That humanity infuses Sonnenfeld’s work as much as his humor. It’s evident in Agent Kay’s remembrance of a lost love and in the heartfelt bond between the two agents who anchor the film. And Sonnenfeld hasn’t lost the knack for light and composition that he developed as a master cinematographer (Big, Misery, Miller’s Crossing). Men in Black is not out to change your life, but in a time of shoddily made clone jobs, escapism crafted this artfully deserves a “bravo.” It’s unlikely that a livelier display of comic fireworks and star power will be blazing your way this summer. To quote the film’s wisest alien, who just happens to be occupying the body of an ugly-ass pug dog, “You don’t like it, you can kiss my furry little butt.”