Movies & TV / Columns

Dissecting the Classics – Men in Black

August 10, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
Men in Black Netflix

So apparently, the Oscar decided to add an “Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film”. Yanno, for when you want to give Black Panther an award other than Best Costume Design, so you make one up. Trust me. It’ll happen.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

Men in Black

Wide Release Date: July 2, 1997
Directed By: Barry Sonnenfeld
Written By: Ed Solomon, based on The Men in Black by Lowell Cunningham
Produced By: Walter F. Parkes and Laurie MacDonald
Cinematography By: Don Peterman
Edited By: Jim MIller
Music By: Danny Elfman
Production Company: Amblin Entertainment & Parkes/MacDonald Productions
Distributed By: Columbia Pictures
Tommy Lee Jones as Agent K
Will Smith as James Darrell Edwards III/Agent J
Vincent D’Onofrio as Edgar/”The Bug”
Linda Fiorentino as Dr. Laurel Weaver
Rip Torn as Agent Zed

What Do We All Know?

In July of 1997, Men in Black demolished Independence Day’s July 1996 opening en route to dominating the box office for three full weeks. It was in many ways the surprise hit of the summer, despite starring two of the biggest (and arguably, overexposed) leading men of the time. The film would eventually be the third biggest hit worldwide (losing second place to The Lost World: Jurassic Park) and the second biggest hit in the States. Coming out in the same time frame as Batman & Robin, Face/Off and The Fifth Element, there was little reason to suspect that Men in Black would be anything more than enjoyable sci-fi schlock. Instead it received widespread critical acclaim to go with its enormous profits, and even managed an Oscar win for Best Makeup (and nominations for Danny Elfman’s score and Best Art Direction). It found its way onto early DVD collections, spawned one god-awful sequel and one decent but far too late sequel, and helped cement Tommy Lee Jones and especially Will Smith as box office gold.

Yet, with the benefit of hindsight, does Men in Black really hold up? More than twenty years later, after two disappointing sequels, after the fall of Will Smith from his megastar status, and with the then-impressive CGI effects now horribly dated, it’d be easy to suspect that this movie was overrated at the time and isn’t particularly good now. After all, how many summer movies from the late 1990s hold up as genuine classics today? However, the assumption that Men in Black may not be all that great is easily contradicted by sitting down and watching the movie.

What Went Right?

In some ways, Men in Black feels more at home among 1980s movies than 1990s movies. It has an exciting, fresh concept pulled from Lowell Cunningham’s six issue comic book series, and it explores that concept thoroughly in a lean 113 minute runtime. The Men in Black are a government agency meant to keep the existence of extraterrestrial life a secret from the rest of humanity, but they act more as an intergalactic embassy than anything else. As long as you’re a peaceful alien trying to make a living without disturbing anyone, you can count on them to set you up. But if you’re a violent alien trying to sneak across the Mexican border (I see you, movie) or a giant killer cockroach looking to start a war, they’ll hunt you down and take you out. Oh, and use nifty little memory eraser devices to make sure any witnesses misremember any chaos you might have caused.

But who are they? Tommy Lee Jones plays Agent K, a man who’s been there since the sixties and looking to get out of the game, especially after his long-time partner has retired. Selecting NYPD officer Edwards (WIll Smith) as his potential replacement, K looks to show him the ropes and prepare for a life of anonymity and alien affairs in his new life as Agent J. The movie is based largely around Smith and Jones making witty observations about the day to day routine of their job, and playing off each other’s personalities in a classic grizzled veteran and young hotshot dynamic. Agent J is quick to go into action, while K is more patient and careful. K erases and gives out new memories in a detached, businesslike manner while J questions the ethics of erasing memories and insists on giving happy, possibly life-changing new memories to the witnesses. It’s a classic dynamic of old cop/young cop, but with aliens and space age tech. And it’s great.

Being both science fiction and comedy, Men in Black has to be smarter than the average movie to really work. It’s got a ton of creative situations for J and K to react to and play off of; the weapons dealer played by Tony Shalhoub, the tests where Edwards has to think outside the box to qualify for the MiB, the aliens going through customs at MIB headquarters,the alien giving birth while J tries to assist, the noisy cricket, K’s surprisingly awesome car, and the film’s central antagonist. Vincent D’Onofrio is a talented character actor (something I think we’re a lot more aware of in 2018 than we were in 1997), and he does a lot of great physical acting to convey this menacing cockroach walking around in human skin. He’s also aided by award-winning makeup, and overall the Bug is a strong villain who develops independently of the heroes. They’re paths only cross by coincidence, with the MiB doing their jobs and the Bug trying to steal a galaxy to cause a war. And while the CGI no longer holds up, the reveal of the giant roach creature made for a suitably awesome climax at the time. They even find a creative way to kill something that clearly has them outmatched.

But it’s not just our heroes and their primary antagonist that make this movie great. Laurel is a fun character with a job that’s suited to the story, working at a morgue where dead aliens show up and having an interest in extraterrestrial life. Rip Torn gives a great performance as Agent Zed, creating an authority figure with a commanding presence but still making sure the movie keeps its winking tone. There’s memorable side characters like the wormlike aliens who hang out in the coffee room, the alien prince they find at the morgue, and Frank the Pug. It’s just a fun, brisk movie with great characters, funny exchanges and even occasional brilliant dialogue. What more can you really ask for?

What Went Wrong?

Unfortunately, there are a few notable misses in the film, though they are usually quickly forgotten about thanks to the pacing and the bevy of genuinely funny material. Edgar has a line to his wife where he tells her to “get her big butt back in the house”, which just seems weirdly tame considering the movie has no qualms about throwing swear words around later. There’s a bit between J and Laurel when the Bug has Laurel hostage that goes on too long, and the last line of the movie is a real groaner. Oh, and the theme song is really pretty terrible. But while these occasional comedic misfires are noticeable, the small number really does serve to accentuate how good the movie is. Aside from the dated special effects, there just isn’t a whole lot to complain about in Men in Black. Unless we’re holding sequels against the original, which I’m not inclined to do.

And In Summary…

The degree to which Men in Black still holds up after all these years is really pleasing to me as a fan who watched this movie dozens of times growing up. It’s got everything you want in a summer movie; it’s funny, it’s action-packed, it’s surprisingly smart, and most of all, it’s just really freaking cool. Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones have great chemistry and their characters are fun and easy to like, the rest of the cast is game, the collection of aliens the film has is impressive, and the Bug is a worthy antagonist. If you loved it as a kid, you can feel vindicated. And if you haven’t given it a chance in a while or missed out on it, give it a watch, because this really does stand tall as one of the best the 1990s had to offer.

Like This Column?
Check out previous editions!
Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Die Hard, Spirited Away, Airplane!, Dirty Dancing, RoboCop, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Captain America: The First Avenger, In the Heat of the Night, West Side Story, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Rocky, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sixth Sense, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Clerks, Goodfellas, The Avengers, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Frozen, Jaws, The Omen, The Incredibles, Life of Brian, Escape From New York, Independence Day, Vacation, Ghostbusters, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Hook

Follow Me On Letterboxd!
I log reviews for every film I see, when I see them. You can see my main page here. Recent reviews include Christopher Robin and Mission: Impossible – Fallout.