Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Cast: Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Vincent D’Onofrio, Linda Fiorentino and Rip Torn
Watch Men in Black online in the UK: Netflix UK / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
Do you remember the 1990s? Mark does. On Fridays, he flashes back to the golden decade of our childhood. From family-friendly films to blockbusters we shouldn’t have been watching, get ready for a monthly dose of nostalgia, as we put down our VHS tapes and find out whether the 90s on Netflix are still Live & Kicking.
In the latter half of the 1990s, blockbusters belonged to Will Smith. 1995’s Bad Boys and 1996’s Independence Day were big hits that minted him as a box office draw, but 1997’s Men In Black was instrumental in his ascent from Fresh Prince to king of the 4th July weekend. In the run-up to David Ayer’s off-kilter Netflix Original film Bright, in which Big Willie stars as a police officer with an orc partner, it’s worth reacquainting yourself with Smith’s original and best supernatural buddy cop movie.
Men In Black is directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, who was also coming off a run of successes earlier in the decade, with The Addams Family and its sequel, and Get Shorty, a film which Columbia delayed this for, so they could secure the director. The combination of Sonnenfeld’s dark sense of humour and Smith’s charisma (and songwriting chops) makes this one of the decade’s smartest and funniest blockbusters.
It follows New York police officer James Edwards III (Smith), as he runs across Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), while pursuing a suspect who is not of this world. K sees Edwards’ potential and initiates him into the MiB, a covert government agency dedicated to policing extraterrestrial life on Earth and keeping their existence secret from society by use of memory-wiping technology. Edwards leaves his job and his identity behind to become Agent J, and soon takes on an alien bug disguised as a farmer, called Edgar (Daredevil’s Vincent D’Onofrio) with designs on stealing an unimaginable power source.
Comparisons to Ghostbusters loom large, particularly with its New York setting and chart-topping theme song, but this is undeniably its own beast. It’s Ed Solomon’s whip-smart script and the creature design by Rick Baker that come together to make this instantly iconic, populating its Big Apple with a lived-in alien underbelly that amuses and grosses out in equal measure. Even Bo Welch’s production design, pitching the MiB headquarters halfway between police precinct and airport terminal tells a story in a single shot.
Smith is on top form as both leading man and audience viewpoint, and he makes a perfect foil to Jones’ grizzled veteran. This may be Jones at his Jonesiest, but he’s fantastic here and the chemistry between mentor and mentee is comedic gold. Between them, they strongly anchor the procedural element, taking in a visit to Tony Shalhoub’s arms dealer with interchangeable heads, and a delightfully icky labour scene.
They’re also well matched to the script’s economy of storytelling. Witness the scene in which K uses a neuralyser on Edgar’s tormented wife without explaining how it wipes memories. Then J steps in to adjust her perspective and lift her out of the doldrums. It doesn’t seem like much on paper, but it serves to show us the difference between the two partners, (other than J making it look good), as well as explaining more about how a mysterious device we’ve already seen used once and how it works. It all feeds into the world-building and the film is made up almost entirely of tightly written and well performed pieces just like it.
While the villain’s plot isn’t exactly memorable, the villain himself is unforgettable. 20 years on, the “Edgar suit” gag still comes up on Twitter every once in a while in reference to certain politicians, and that’s testament to D’Onofrio’s disgustingly ill-at-ease physical performance as the bug struggling to wrangle a human form. He elevates what could have been “freak of the week” fodder, just as the film itself could easily have been a TV pilot for an X Files spoof, were it not for its terrific visual effects and aesthetic.
The music lifts it too, with Danny Elfman’s mischievous score, and, of course, Smith’s theme song, which plays over the end credits and also got a music video that’s an essential companion to the film. Everything comes together in a way that failed twice over in the Noughties sequels (also available on Netflix UK, at the time of writing) – Men In Black II is a joyless retcon and a slog, even at a truncated 88 minutes, and the marginally better Men In Black 3 spent a decade in development to conflate the rich sci-fi comedy premise with a convoluted time travel runaround.
But forget what you think you remember about this franchise and go back to the original. Men in Black really holds up as a riotous, conspiracy-fuelled comedy, building a bizarre world that really rewards rewatches. In a way, this was an impossible act for its sequels to follow, but its endless entertainment value makes it one of the very best summer movies of the 1990s.
Men in Black is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.
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