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Stranger Danger

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.

There's a particularly good racial joke that's never developed: J is riding high in the retro-'60s law enforcement culture that is famously lily white. There should be a sweet payback in his triumph, but the filmmakers don't want to recognize it. Their deliberate colorblindness in regard to the cops is a cop-out and typical of the film's pussyfooting around race. There's nothing in this movie that will faze teens.

New Yorkers probably will be unfazed, too. Manhattan is infested with aliens? So what else is new? The comic horror of the city has finally found its metaphor. But there's no malice in the film's disclosure about aliens-in-hiding; it comes across instead as a valentine to Manhattan grunge. The filmmakers aren't playing up the soullessness of city life; they're celebrating its crazy-making, anything-can-happen fizz.

Thankfully, you'll find no sentimentality for the simple rural life in Men in Black. This is a city-slicker comedy. It's no accident that the worst of the aliens--the one who is attempting to bring doom upon the Earth--is an immense, cockroachlike creature who has taken over the body of a farmer yokel named Edgar (Vincent D'Onofrio). With his rotting skin and cadaverous pallor, Edgar is a hayseed ghoul--he's his own compost heap.

The best moments are the ones in which the filmmakers allow you to catch their comic zigzags on the sly. In perhaps the film's best scene, K and J stop a car on a rural road, and it turns out the pregnant woman inside is really an alien about to give birth. As K grills the hubby outside the car, J looks in on the birth, and all we see, from a distance, is a giant tentacle flinging him about and bouncing him off the roof. Sonnenfeld showed a gift for malarkey in the Addams Family movies, and he keeps coming up with wiggy visual jokes here, like the chase on foot between J and an alien inside the sci-fi whorls of the Guggenheim Museum.

But there's also a harrowing ferocity to the alien effects that I think is a mistake. Sonnenfeld doesn't appear to recognize how horrific parts of this movie are or how discordantly that horror clangs with his deft tomfoolery. Filmmakers now have available to them a special-effects arsenal sophisticated enough to give even Hieronymous Bosch the willies--and too many of them pour on the frights regardless of how tonally inappropriate those effects are for the movie. The filmmakers get carried away by their ability to up the gross-out ante.

Perhaps they think audiences won't sit still for anything less. But there's no reason the gloppy gross-outs in Men in Black have to be so frightening, except that Sonnenfeld and his alien-makeup expert, Rick Baker, and the other visual-effects artists probably couldn't resist going all the way. And so we see K squirming his way into the belly of the cockroach alien and then being spewed out. The way it's been designed and shot, the sequence comes across not as a sick joke but as a nightmarish freakout. And yet this is supposed to be a comedy. (You wouldn't want to take young children to see this film.)

What's being lost here is the simplicity that is possible in the realm of imaginative effects. You don't need megamillions in hardware and computer enhancements to get a response from audiences. The biggest scream in The Lost World--and I actually saw it twice--came not when the T. rexes are pouncing, but when a tiny coral snake slips down the shirt of an explorer. That should tell you something. And the biggest giggle in Men in Black comes when K is furiously shaking up an alien shaped like a tiny pug dog. The filmmakers responsible for many of the big new blockbusters appear to be on a crusade to show us how tough they are, even when they are trying to make us laugh. It's the wrong crusade.

Men in Black
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld; with Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Vincent D'Onofrio, Rip Torn and Linda Fiorentino.

Rated


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