Men in Black is arguably Will Smith’s most successful franchise, and it helped solidify his early career as a staple in summer blockbusters for years to come.
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, the film introduces us to a modern world where humans and aliens have co-existed for many decades. The Men in Black (MiB) was formed as a secret agency to house extraterrestrial refugees in secret, who live in disguise on earth as various life forms; the majority pose as humans.
The MiB identifies their agents by their first initial of their name and give up any attachments of their past lives. The film follows Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) and his newest recruit, Agent J (Smith) as they fight in a race against time in search of a relic to prevent its capture from a hostile bug alien (Vincent D’Onofrio) and the imminent destruction of the earth. Those too much in the know, get their memories temporarily wiped with a false memory implanted through a device called a neuralyzer.
The action and the story is very tongue-in-cheek as a send up of sci-fi staples and meta gags of the genre as you see Jones as rare straight man with his signature sarcastic wit perfectly matched with the slapstick timing and overconfident Smith.
The film, based on the comic series by Lowell Cunningham, is a perfect balance allowing the actors to shine in their natural roles while the special effects accentuated the performances. As much as the industry gets caught up in the details of special effects especially given the reliance on CGI, it’s easy to insert actors to help make it tie together. When the effects become front and center, I feel the actors often get lost too much in the shuffle. It’s getting harder to maintain the balance these days.
The effects from Rick Baker and Industrial Light & Magic deserve special mention given the way the aliens were so lifelike and showed there were no boundaries to what can conceivably be an alien. It could be as outrageous as the bug who took over “Edgar” or it could be as subtle as Frank the Pug (Tim Blaney).
Supporting Jones, Smith and D’Onofrio are Rip Torn, Linda Fiorentino and Tony Shalhoub. While Torn and Shalhoub providing their own stamp to their roles, it’s a shame we never got to see Fiorentino further reap the benefits of the franchise for its two sequels and potential crossover with 21 Jump Street as she held her own with the two primary protagonists.
Given the film’s over-the-top and obscure nature, it was only fitting for Danny Elfman to score the film given his reputation working on Tim Burton’s films. Speaking of music, the film also rebooted Smith’s music career as it took a back seat when he decided to pursue a film career following his success on NBC’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
As far as the franchise goes, I was perfectly happy with just the film the way it ended. The two sequels in MiB 2 and MiB 3 did very little than rehash the previous plot points and by then it just became solely a vehicle for Will Smith. The next two films never really overcame the “been there, done that” feeling as sequels often do. They did more to tarnish the legacy of the first film as Fiorentino was written off completely for the second film. Jones was shoehorned in the third film as a glorified cameo in favor of Josh Brolin, who played K’s younger self. Torn was replaced in the third film in favor of an underused Emma Thompson.
What makes MiB special is everyone involved looked like they had fun. It was fresh and original. It’s the kind of sci-fi experience you rarely see anymore because so many take themselves too seriously.
Personally, if there was any continuation of the series, I would attempt a live action TV show on a network like SyFy. I would almost guarantee its success in the similar vein as Warehouse 13 and The X-Files. MiB already worked on TV as an animated show and since we’re so heavy on nostalgia, this would be a prime opportunity for something fresh without the pressure of having to keep up.
How well do you think MiB stood up after all these years? What is your favorite scene?