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Men in Black
Courtesy Light and Magic

Skeet and Run: Will Smith (left) and Tommy Lee Jones go gunning for bug-eyed monsters in 'Men in Black.'

'Men in Black' is a trim, speedy special-effects treat with an edge

By Richard von Busack

BARRY SONNENFELD photographed Raising Arizona and Blood Simple before going on to direct The Addams Family and Get Shorty. Thus, he's already versed in the making of macabre, fast, unsentimental entertainments. Among the summer crop of bloated, spoofing action pictures, Men in Black is in great shape--several critics told me in advance how happy they were to hear that the movie was only going to be about 90 minutes long. Men in Black is indeed trim, speedy and godless. Better even than special-effects man Rick Baker's marvelous work on the aliens is the lack of comfort offered at the end. Amid too many movies full of the epic battle between good and evil, Men in Black suggests that both good and evil are irrelevant human terms.

Tommy Lee Jones' clipped Texan understatement and his thousand-yard stare earned from fighting one too many aliens prepare you for the film's punch line: possibly the longest-distance pull-back shot in the history of the movies. Even Will Smith has started to manifest something that looks like acting. Trying to be reasonable as he talks a 30-foot-tall alien bug into surrendering, Smith shows traces of fear underneath that usually smooth, ultracool pose that makes him, on the whole, so boring to watch.

Smith plays an NYPD officer. After chasing an alien through Grand Central Station and the Guggenheim Museum, he encounters K (Jones), a member of the Men in Black, mysterious government operatives who, as the urban legend has it, show up to harass anyone sighting a UFO. Given the nom de guerre J, Smith is enlisted into the top-secret organization to find an illegal alien. Sonnenfeld must have been sensitive about being thought of as a Pete Wilson supporter; the first sequence has K being polite to a group of Mexican illegals while trying to ferret out the extraterrestrial in their ranks.

By interstellar treaty, a certain number of heavily monitored refugee aliens are allowed sanctuary on Earth--in one typically economical line by screenwriter Ed Solomon, K explains that Earth is like Casablanca. The crash landing of a nasty species of alien occasions a response from J and K. As that alien, Vincent D'Onofrio is hilarious in a borrowed, ill-fitting human skin wrapped badly on his exoskeleton; the disguise is wearing out as he wears it.

Unfortunately, the film doesn't develop some of its best ideas. The comic possibilities of the "neuralyser"--a wand that erases the short-term memories of Earthlings having seen aliens--aren't developed enough, for instance; it's a gag you want to see pay off. Also on the debit side, Linda Fiorentino is used for the most crass laughs in the picture: a piece of dirty vaudeville in which she tries to direct J's attention to an alien in hiding but he thinks that she's pointing to her crotch. But the basic idea in Men in Black--that there is an unseen world inside this world and that this other world isn't benign, as in the films of Tim Burton--is a compelling one. Summer popcorn that it is, Men in Black is a spiky film. Riding the bus back from the screening, I was creeped out enough to stare at the other passengers, wondering which ones were just slumming here.

Men in Black (PG-13; 98 min.), directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, written by Ed Solomon, photographed by Don Peterman and starring Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith.

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From the July 3-9, 1997 issue of Metro.

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