1997: Looking Back At MEN IN BLACK - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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1997: Looking Back At MEN IN BLACK

Tony makes this look good.

Almost a decade before there was Torchwood, looking out for alien artefacts and alien people to horde, talk to and occasionally blow to smithereens, the Men In Black were an urban myth. If you made contact with aliens, the legend went, the Men In Black would appear, rob you of your experiences, and maybe even your lives, so as not to cause a public panic when the whole world realised that aliens were real, and very possibly among us.

1997 was smack bang in the middle of the period of time we know as The X-Files Years, a decade of suspicion, fear and above all, Taking Things Way Too Seriously. The idea of the Men In Black as a real phenomenon was beginning to permeate conspiracy theorist circles (and you had to be dedicated to your conspiracies in those days, there weren’t neeeeearly so many opportunities to spread uninformed nonsense on the internet). Buffy had just begun kicking vampire ass on TV, Harry Potter was a secret only available to British readers, and the darkest of the Trek series, DS9 was in the middle of its darkest, most suspicious and convoluted storylines, where there could be secret agent doppelgangers for the enemy anywhere you looked. It was a time in which Geek World needed more cake, more laughs, more froth, more fun, more…well, in two words, frankly more Will Smith.

Men In Black, the movie, is a consummate exercise in subversion. The idea of the dark, scary, shadowy force who would steal the memories of your contact with aliens was utterly turned on its head in the script by Ed Solomon, loosely based on the earlier comic-books by Lowell Cunningham. In the Solomon version, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld (who’d made his name as cinematographer on some 80s classic comedies, including Throw Momma From The Train, Big and When Harry Met Sally, but who’d made his mark as a director on the surprisingly appealing Addams Family movies), blended elements of the conspiracy theory mythos with a grander purpose and the kind of funding you can only get from borrowing ideas from aliens and releasing them onto the human market. When you have an idea like that, you want certain hallmarks of visual cool along the way to sell it – you want sleek buildings, you want comedy aliens, you want a big threat and (as Russell T Davies was to cotton onto), you want a secretive organisation with kickass vehicles, weapons and tech, hidden inside a perfectly ordinary landmark.

Men In Black delivers all that in absolute bucketfuls, Tommy Lee Jones playing the ageing K as an ‘old-style’ MIB agent, robbing people of their memories and leaving them only the most anodyne, oft-repeated excuses in their place – gas explosions and the like – while trying to get to the bottom of some suspicious, possibly alien, activity. Meanwhile, a vacancy has arisen among the Men In Black due to K’s partner succumbing to what feels like an occupational hazard – a kind of jadedness with the knowledge of everything that’s out there, and a longing for the simplicity of seeing the stars as a beautiful backdrop to the complications of human life. The retirement plan for the Men In Black is surprisingly sweet – they get neuralized, their memories wiped, and placed into a kind of witness protection program reality, to live out the rest of their lives unburdened by everything they’ve seen and done.

Smith, as James Darrell Edwards, an NYPD cop who runs down a nippy alien with unconventional eyelids, becomes the new Man In Black, bringing lateral thinking, emotion, and above all, a sense of style and humour with which it initially looks like the organisation is unfamiliar. The movie is more or less an odd couple cop buddy comedy, but with aliens diplomats, missing galaxies, and big bugs walking around in human-suits (again, eight years before the Slitheen lolloped across TV screens in CGI). It’s full of ideas, and fun, and at least a good solid stab at proper plotting, with dead alien diplomats and the arrival of a particularly ultra-violent alien cockroach pushing the pace along. Re-watched twenty years on, it’s surprising quite how much ground is covered and how briskly the set-up and the storyline both move, side by side, Edwards’ recruitment, the big bug problem and the sudden issue of the missing galaxy ‘on Orion’s Belt’ running semi-parallel, and the hunt for both the bug and the galaxy gaining import and pace as a species of aliens called the Arquillians, whose king had the missing galaxy with him, come calling, filling the vacant position of ‘ticking clock’ in the movie, threatening all kinds of planet-destroying retribution if the galaxy isn’t returned to them pretty damn smart. New recruit, missing galaxy, potential end of the world, big ugly bug in a human suit – and then there’s the Deputy Medical Examiner who’s seen too much, too many times, and for whom J has at least the mid-level hots.

And, along the way, there are also alien octopus births, exterminators who really shouldn’t bend the way they do, and, oh yeah – ‘gas explosions.’ Pacy, pacy, pacy. Linda Fiorentino gives the movie some added sass as Laurel Weaver, the DME who witnesses the king of the Arquillians in his old-man body-suit, the gloriously immortal Rip Torn as Zed, leader of the MIB, gives if nothing else the best voice-over in a movie in the last twenty years, and Vincent D’onofrio, in one of his early roles, gives an utterly astonishing performance as Edgar, the farmer whose skin is used by the big bug.

There’s a point here – while Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are beyond a shadow of doubt the biggest of the draws in the movie when it comes to acting talent and characterisation, not least because the story is their story, the supporting roles are zippy and rich and enormously well filled. In addition to which, the alien sequences are rendered by the genius of Rick Baker and the powerhouse of Industrial Light and Magic.

None of which would be worth a dollar fifty if the script wasn’t great and the leads weren’t perfect. If you think that’s a frivolous point, it’s worth noting that Tommy Lee Jones called for the script to be redrafted after seeing the first version and not being happy with it. As it evolved though, the script juggles its storylines without ever dropping a ball – Edgar’s plans to grab the galaxy and get the hell out of interstellar Dodge, the drawing of Fiorentino’s Weaver into the work of the Men In Black, all work as part of a hell of a ‘first day on the job’ for J, and deliver a last act premise-shift that brings the whole story full circle and sweetens it into something that leaves you smiling, and perhaps just a little sniffy.

And in terms of the leads, it’s worth remembering that first Chris O’Donnell (yes, really, the guy who played Robin in Batman Forever and Batman and Robin), and then (shudders) David ‘Ross from Friends’ Schwimmer passed on the role eventually taken by Will Smith. Think about what Men In Black could have been like with either of those actors in the Will Smith role, and imagine we were trying to talk about it twenty years on.

Yyyyeah – how’s that going for you?

Smith and Jones together are a power-combo, Jones dry and witty as a forest fire, and Smith a live wire of energy and what-the-hell, bringing a freewheeling, accessible humour to play, and a modernity that sparks off Jones’ K with hilarious results. Two more movies down the line, the idea of anyone else in either role is really unthinkable – despite the plot of Men In Black 3 and Josh Brolin’s role in it. It’s unthinkable because the combination of Smith and Jones is as good as some of the best comedy double-acts in movie history – we’re talking Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, we’re talking Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, we’re talking Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi, Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. People don’t generally think of Smith and Jones as being in the same league because both are as well known for serious dramatic roles as they are for their comedies. Watch Men In Black again, and remind yourself just how superb they are in it. They, as much as the quality of the supporting cast, and the brilliance (at least for their time) of the alien effects, and the eventual excellence of the script with its parallel plotlines and its pace, are what makes Men In Black so eminently re-watchable. Play Men In Black again, and enjoy one of the best geeky comedies of the nineties – and still, one of the best geeky comedies of the last twenty years.

Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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