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Men in Black
Everything you could ask for in a summer movie
Men in Black
Columbia Pictures
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld
USA, 1997
With the fiftieth anniversary of the incident at Roswell (whatever it was) approaching and the success of the wonderfully spooky X-Files, UFOs and conspiracy theories have emerged from the province of the lunatic fringe to mainstream hipness. One might be tempted to say the trend is losing steam when it starts to show up in Suddenly Susan and on Time covers, but Men in Black proves that the undercover weirdness concept can still be carried off successfully, productions like Dark Skies notwithstanding.

Despite the current conspiracy theory trendiness (and the "based on a Marvel comic" credit at the beginning of the movie), Men in Black was originally a black and white comic book from alternative publisher Malibu almost ten years ago, and movie negotiations have been rumored to have been kicking around for about as long. If this is true, we can thank our lucky stars it took so long--we might have been stuck with the likes of Don Johnson and Bruce Willis as the title characters, instead of Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith.

As it is, the chemistry between Jones (the experienced and stone-faced Man in Black, Kay) and Smith (the recently-recruited smart-ass Jay) is perfect. After chasing down a disguised alien during his beat as an NYPD cop, Jay is tapped to join MiB, an organization that keeps tabs on any of the 1500 aliens on our world at any given time (including Steven Spielberg, Newt Gingrich, and possibly the guy who gives you funny looks on the Metro). The snappy dialogue between Jay, a mouthy know-it-all, and Kay, who really does know it all, is worth the price of admission on its own.

In fact, that simple declaration--"worth the price of admission"--points up what separates the firmly tongue-in-cheek Men in Black from the rest of the summer blockbusters which have failed to impress so far. The 98-minute running time might seem skimpy compared to the two hours and up for the rest of the season's fare, but by avoiding the now-standard dramatic pauses, drawn out slow-motion explosions, and lengthy closeups of well-paid stars squinting mightily, there is actually more content than usual.

The creators of Men in Black have gone back to a recipe for making movies that has worked since the the days of silent film: equal parts substance and style, mix well, sprinkle with well-timed and witty dialogue, and simmer for 90 to 120 minutes. While the other summer movies have used the same ingredients, they used a little too much artificial flavoring and sweeteners which tasted great in the cinema, but ultimately left us with a bad aftertaste.

Originally printed in the Montreal Mirror (July 10, 1999)
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