Stranger Danger

In the wacked-out Men in Black, subtlety is an alien concept

The special effects in the sci-fi comedy Men in Black are an orgy of animatronics, mechanical effects, practical effects, miniatures, computer enhancements, makeup--the whole shebang. The film's mishmash of tones, from goofball to horrific, is equally all over the map. It has its cartoonish side, but it also has its Aliens side--and just about every other side, too. Like so many big special-effects thrillers right now, it throws everything at the audience.

It once was a boon when a movie offered "something for everyone," but current studio thinking has perverted that ideal. Too often "something for everyone" means a glop of pretested bits calculated to connect with the widest possible audience without regard to the logic of plot, story or emotion. It's a way of giving the audience its money's worth while picking its pocket.

To its credit, I suppose, Men in Black is a far better pickpocket than any of its throw-everything-at-you summer blockbuster rivals--although being best of breed with the likes of Speed 2: Cruise Control, Con Air, Batman & Robin and The Lost World: Jurassic Park is no prize. It's the best of them because at least its knuckleballs and boomerangs have some velocity. But mostly what keeps you hooked in Men in Black is its knockabout premise plus the odd-couple pairing of Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith as Division 6 agents, respectively, K and J--undercover detectives for an "unofficial" government agency devoted to keeping tabs on the 1,500 or so aliens in our midst, most of whom, naturally, reside in New York City.

The film--directed by Barry Sonnenfeld with a script by Ed Solomon, loosely derived from The Men in Black comic books by Lowell Cunningham--is keyed to an oddly reassuring idea. You know those people in your life who are just too strange or annoying to be human? It turns out they're aliens in human camouflage. (That clears up a lot of things for us.)

The notion of Men in Black has been a prime campfire tale since the '50s, when numerous UFO eyewitnesses claimed to have been visited by two blank-faced, dark-suited men--feds? Martians? Jack Webb clones?--who tried to scare them into silence. (Subsequently, TV shows such as The X-Files and NBC's Dark Skies have popularized the Men, as did the Frank Black song of the same name.)

In the Cold War '50s, a movie like Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers played up the paranoia of not really knowing who your friends are. Anybody might be a pod. Men in Black, though set in the present, works off the Kennedyesque '60s, when NASA space exploration was promoted as rah-rah uplift as we shot our wad into the universe. As '60s throwbacks, the Men in Black wear black suits with white shirts, narrow ties and matching Ray-Bans. They drive a black Ford LTD with turbo engines.

Their top-secret agency, begun in the '60s, still looks like it's stuck there--its inner sanctum in New York City, presided over by the imperious, unflappable Zed (Rip Torn), has a '60s functional corporate modishness, like the TWA terminal at New York's JFK airport. It's the port of entry for the wayward of the universe--an Ellis Island for space aliens. In one of the film's nuttiest sequences, we see the aliens lining up for entry and disembarkation with a collection of snouts, tentacles, bulbous bellies and gelatinous maws that rivals that in the cantina scene in Star Wars.

We've seen so many black-white cop buddies in the movies that the teaming of agents K and J is always on the verge of being generic. But there's nothing generic about Jones and Smith (except, come to think of it, their last names). Jones plays well as K because, in movies ranging from The Eyes of Laura Mars to Cobb, it often seems he could be an alien himself; his wary, deep-set eyes and knobby, punched-out features seem on the verge of mutating into something gloppy. In casting Jones as an alien-buster, the filmmakers appear to be playing a game of set-a-thief-to-catch-a-thief. Jones' K is a deadpan G-man who isn't the least bit stunned when a human morphs into a freakazoid; he takes a lawman's professional pride in keeping tabs on the aliens in his midst.

Next to Jones, Smith is all sweetness and light. His jive normality has been used as a foil before in the sci-fi realm--in Independence Day, where he got down to business by punching out an alien with a hard sock to the head. Smith's J is supposed to be our golly-gee surrogate here, but, unlike most audience surrogates, he isn't some passive observer. He's psyched to root out aliens, and he clamors for the high-tech hardware K proffers, especially a penlight neutralizer that zaps the memories of humans who have witnessed alien stuff. J eagerly allows himself to be recruited from the New York police into the fold--even if it means dropping all conventional human contacts--because he's geared up to be an elite. What's the NYPD compared with the ultimate police force?

You would expect these two to "grow" a bit in the course of the movie. But K is pretty much a straight-faced alien-buster throughout, and J remains the wide-eyed rookie. The filmmakers can't think what to do with them except play out again and again their obvious temperamental differences, and so, conceptually, at least, the pairing mimics the Danny Glover-Mel Gibson stuff in the Lethal Weapon series, which also played its groove into the ground.

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