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What's the big deal?
Men In Black is a sci-fi action comedy film released in 1997 and is loosely based on the comic book series of the same name by Lowell Cunningham and Sandy Carruthers. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, the film follows a new recruit into a clandestine agency supervising alien activity on Earth while a dangerous threat from deep space emerges. The film stars Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Linda Fiorentino, Vincent D'Onofrio and the much missed Rip Torn. The film features a number of alien designs by the legendary makeup specialist Rick Baker and is also known for its theme tune by Smith which won him a Grammy. The film was a commercial smash, breaking records on its way to a worldwide total of $589 million, the third biggest film of the year. Critics were also impressed, praising the screenplay and performances of Smith and Jones. The film launched the Men In Black franchise, starting with the second film in 2002, a third film in 2012 and a spin-off - Men In Black: International - in 2019 in addition to an animated kids show.
What's it about?
Intercepting a border patrol on the US-Mexico border, two men in black suits - Agent K and Agent D - lead away one of the men caught who turns out to be an aggressive alien in disguise who suddenly attacks them. After being forced into killing it, Agent K finds himself on the hunt for a new partner and comes across an interesting potential candidate in the shape of NYPD officer James Edwards. Edwards recently pursued another disguised alien through the streets of the Big Apple and unwittingly discovered the alien's identity. K then introduces Edwards to his organisation - the Men In Black - who work to supervise all alien activity on Earth as well as suppress knowledge of this fact via the use of memory-erasing neuralyzers.
Unfortunately, it seems that Edwards' time in the organisation may be short-lived after a UFO crashes into a farm in upstate New York and its malevolent pilot adopts the human guise of the poor farmer, Edgar. J is forced to adopt Edwards in the MIB, erasing his citizen past and issuing the trademark suit, sunglasses and new identity - J. As J and K head off to investigate the crash, they forever seem one step behind their extra-terrestrial enemy...
What's to like?
It's unusual to find a summer blockbuster like this that attempts so much and is actually able to stick the landing. Men In Black is a well-written and well-thought-out sci-fi comedy that combines elements of satire, pop culture, imagination and the right levels of creepiness to satisfy almost any audience. At a time when the paranormal was strictly in an X-Files-style seriousness, here is a film that is unashamed at taking a more light-hearted look at all things alien. Key to this film's success is the excellent work put in by its two stars. Will Smith cemented his A-list status with this film as a smooth-talking action lead unafraid to laugh at himself when necessary while Jones delivers one of the more memorable performances in his long, distinguished career as well as parodying the straight-faced, unflappable nature of so-called G-Men like Fox Mulder. The two of them may be opposites but they work together really well and keep the story ticking over nicely.
Supported by the comically disturbing D'Onofrio as the barely human Edgar, Rip Torn in scene-stealing mode and the always enjoyable Tony Shalhoub in a twitchy cameo, the film is awash with clever design and plenty of visual treats. It has a style all of its own, partly due to the character's iconic suits and sunglasses combo but also the design of the alien creatures seen, which are varied and slightly less frightening than the classic Xenomorph from Alien. The humour is also a strong hand for the film with everyone having their moment to shine and a loose, slightly silly comedy that helps it appeal to so many. In a landscape dominated by films that use aliens as a source of fear, horror or explosions, it's refreshing to find a movie that adopts a more fun approach instead.
- A screen at MIB headquarters displays "known aliens" operating on Earth and these include US weatherman Al Roker, Sylvester Stallone, Danny DeVito, director Barry Sonnenfeld and his daughter Chloe, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, singer Dionne Warwick and executive producer Steven Spielberg.
- The film's huge success at the box office led to Marvel (who owned the published rights to the comic at the time) to pursue other properties they could develop into films. This ultimately led to a collaboration with Columbia Pictures for 2002's Spider-Man and possibly the development of the Marvel Cinematic Universe leading to Iron Man in 2008.
- It took D'Onofrio six hours to have the makeup applied, to make his face look like it was being stretched. He also taped up his ankles and wore knee braces to give his character his distinctive walk as well as basing his movement on Peter Sellers in Dr Strangelove.
- All three male leads would go on to feature in future comic-book adaptations. Jones appears in Captain America: The First Avenger as Colonel Chester Phillips (and had previously played Harvey Dent in Batman Forever), Smith would star as Deadshot in 2016's Suicide Squad while D'Onofrio would appear as the villainous Kingpin / Wilson Fisk in the MCU series Daredevil and Hawkeye.
What's not to like?
One of the biggest problems with a film that uses so much computer-generated imagery is that it's hard to future-proof. Men In Black isn't an ugly movie by any means but its cavalcade of creatures and alien antagonists look decidedly roughshod these days. It's important to remember the time this film was made - it was just a couple of years before the debut of Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace and only a few years removed from Jim Carrey's rubber-faced breakthrough in The Mask. These days, we take CGI for granted almost but the technology wasn't quite in place for such an ambitious film as this.
The film rushes its way towards the conclusion (another ten minutes or so of running time wouldn't have hurt the film one bit) and poor Linda Fiorentino is underutilised as the pathologist unwittingly caught up in the chaos. But generally speaking, Men In Black delivers entertainment in spades. It's fast, fun and exciting enough to keep viewers young and old hooked and judging by the response the sequels received, it's also considerably better than any of them. It might be easy to dismiss the film as summer filler but Men In Black is smarter and funnier than it has any right to be.
Should I watch it?
It might not be as ground-breaking as it was in its day but Men In Black remains a seriously good family film, offering a great deal of fun, frights and thrills to viewers of any age. Smith and Jones are a terrific lead pairing, offering good chemistry as well as a cheeky sideswipe to other franchises who take themselves far too seriously. My advice is to not necessarily bother with the sequels and stick with this first film which may be ambitious but manages to deliver almost as much as it promises.
Great For: family film nights, kickstarting franchises, anyone bored of overly serious sci-fi
Not So Great For: the sequels that had to follow this, anyone who hates Will Smith's music (that theme tune is still a banger), shady Government types
What else should I watch?
This first film would arguably prove the series' highpoint as none of the following films mirrored its success. Men In Black II wasn't quite as popular with audiences although it still made more than $441 million worldwide. But critics weren't as impressed as the film recycled many of the first film's elements for diminishing returns. Men In Black 3, by contrast, was seen by some as a return to form for the series and the film managed to overcome its astronomical budget to become the highest earning film in the series so far. But with the original trilogy wrapping up after the third film, producers took the decision for a spin-off project - Men In Black: International - to revive the franchise's fortunes. With new stars in the lead (Thor: Ragnarok co-stars Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson), the film failed to repeat previous successes and it remains to be seen what happens in future for our besuited intergalactic bodyguards.
While many films tend to use aliens in a horror or thriller capacity (see Alien or Predator for details), a number do try to see the funny side of extra-terrestrial life on Earth although not all of them get it right. Those that do include the very funny Galaxy Quest which parodies the likes of Star Trek and their rabid fanbase to great effect, slacker comedy Paul which teams up best buddies Simon Pegg and Nick Frost with an escaped alien voiced by Seth Rogen and for a more Marvel-flavoured experience, Guardians Of The Galaxy is an off-beat and at times surreal adventure set in deep space without a recognisable superhero in sight. Soundtrack kicks ass as well!
Tommy Lee Jones
James Darrell Edwards III / Agent J
Dr Laurel Weaver
Edgar / The Bug
Release Date (UK)
1st August, 1997
12 (2017 re-rating)
Action, Comedy, Sci-Fi
Academy Award Nominations
Best Set Direction, Best Musical Score
© 2022 Benjamin Cox