'Men in Black': THR's 1997 Review

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Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in 1997's 'Men in Black.'
A terrifically entertaining combination of alien conspiracy fears played for laughs and 'French Connection'-meets-'Ghostbusters' thrills.

On July 2, 1997, Sony brought Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones' sci-fi comedy Men in Black to theaters, where it raked in $589 million worldwide as a summer smash. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below: 

One doesn't need to be a cosmologist to anticipate the Big Bang when Sony's Men in Black opens July 2. Holdovers and other hopefuls will go splat against this broad-shouldered, well-tailored sci-fi comedy as it muscles through the prime summer season and shoots down unworldly grosses.

Word-of-mouth will be monstrous based on the universally accessible performances by leads Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith and the excellent special effects. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Barry Sonnenfeld (The Addams Family films, Get Shorty), the Amblin Entertainment production is a "Bugbusters" with mainstream appeal and should have paranormally endowed legs to finish as one of the year's top domestic and international moneymakers.

A terrifically entertaining combination of alien conspiracy fears played for laughs and French Connection-meets-Ghostbusters thrills, with a stellar screenplay by Ed Solomon (the Bill and Ted films, the upcoming X-Men), Men in Black is so much fun one is actually mildly disappointed when it ends after an economically short 98 minutes.

Based on Lowell Cunningham's graphic novel and Malibu comic-book series — with a new movie-based version on tap from Marvel — Men in Black wastes no time in introducing its prime letters, K (Jones) and J (Smith). The former is a veteran in a super-secret, unofficial governmental agency that monitors and polices a thriving population of some 1,500 aliens that have immigrated to Earth.

Sly jokes abound as deadpan K introduces New York cop J (for joker) and the audience to the many gadgets and concepts that go with them. Not only do the aliens assume human or animal form, but their frequent encounters with everyday earthlings that end in showers of goo or wanton destruction entail the MIB's use of a handheld memory eraser.

Those Ray-Ban sunglasses also come with an array of sophisticated weaponry, although it's the attitude that makes the difference. Getting one's identity honed down to the point where fingerprints are erased, however, has its downsides and the well-balanced scenario works in a homey, wistful sentiment or two.

As K and J determine that a fugitive race of aliens, along with the rest of Earth's occupants, is under attack by a malevolent "bug," the fate of the planet hinges on recovering a shiny bauble which contains something small but very important. The villain takes over the body of a farmer (Vincent D'Onofrio) and in zombie-like fashion stalks its victims in the Big Apple, leading to a rousing showdown at the 1964 World's Fair site in Queens.

Relatively restrained, Linda Fiorentino as a medical examiner whose memories of numerous visits from the MIB have been routinely zapped joins the madcap race to squash D'Onofrio's character, while Rip Torn plays the head of the agency with gruffness to spare. Other standout performers are Tony Shalhoub (Big Night) as a hapless (and briefly headless) pawnshop owner and Siobhan Fallon as the farmer's tabloid-fodder wife.

The dialogue is spunky and fresh to go with the scum-of-the-universe-hunting storyline and the visual jokes are masterfully executed. Along with the numerous gags involving heads and headlines, a pug and other critters get into the act.

Anyone doubting Jones' comic talents will find many hilarious examples to the contrary, but funnyman Smith is far from coasting on the success of last year's Independence Day. Together they are a galactic hoot and look fabulous while clearly having a good time messing with audience expectations.

Rick Baker's alien makeup effects are amazing and visual effects supervisor Eric Brevig and Industrial Light & Magic expertly wrangle the many squishy creatures and spaceships.

Jim Miller's editing, Mary E. Vogt's costumes and Bo Welch's production design are all superb. Danny Elfman's energetic score is also a knockout, with a little help from Elvis and Smith's catchy rap title song. — David Hunter, originally published on June 23, 1997.