Have a quick think about your memories of the first Men in Black film. What immediately comes to mind is likely to include sharp suits, sunglasses, big-ass silver guns (and a certain tiny one), odd-couple buddy-cop repartee and, of course, aliens. When Barry Sonnenfeld’s sci-fi action comedy arrived in July 1997, it was a smash. Audiences loved its winning combo of ‘50s B-movie science fiction, crazy creatures and Will Smith wisecracking.
The movie, which spawned two (inferior) sequels, sits pretty today with a 92% score on Rotten Tomatoes and a 71 from Metacritic. Its iconic style and effortless cool still reward viewers today. But what made it so damn good? To mark MiB’s 20th birthday, we take a look.
Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith’s Bromance
The movie’s central pairing is just the perfect odd-couple double act. Tommy Lee Jones (as Agent K) is older, surly, stony-faced – and paired up brilliantly with Smith’s (Agent J) youthful energy and motor-mouth schtick.
At the time, both were on the rise to superstardom. Jones, approaching 50, was coming off the back of an Oscar win (Best Supporting Actor for The Fugitive) and a major blockbuster role as the villainous Two Face in Batman Forever. Smith was already a sitcom star and rapper, and had just blown up in Hollywood with Bad Boys and Independence Day.
Somewhat surprisingly, it was Jones who got on board first for MiB, saying he was interested as soon as he was shown the comic-book source material. It was only later that Smith came on board. And the two are a delight together, rapidly forming a chemistry on screen that captures their antagonistic personalities and approaches yet also an understated sense of belonging as they become mentor and apprentice.
Many of the funniest scenes involve K’s efforts to take J under his wing and show him the ropes of the Men in Black. His calm, “seen it all before” restraint and composure act as a counterpoint to J’s instinct to run after and shoot at things first. This is perfectly illustrated when the villainous alien “bug”, Edgar, escapes the morgue. J sprints off, weapon drawn, frantically searching taxis – while K strolls slowly outside and collects their car. A little later, after telling J to “push the little red button” that transforms their ride into a gravity-defying supercar, Jones happily nods his head along to an Elvis tape while an upside-down Smith slapsticks himself the right way up.
The rapport of its stars is one of the biggest strengths of the film, with note-perfect casting allowing great performances which play to each actor’s skills.
It would be understandable, even forgivable, for mid-‘90s special effects to look dated and pretty naff now – but Men in Black’s still hold up brilliantly. A mixture of practical, Oscar-winning makeup effects, costumes and then-top-end CGI, the aliens look fantastic, tactile and original. From illegal immigrant Mikey, who we meet in the prologue (“Put up your arms and all your flippers”), to the Worm Guys that work for MiB, and a tiny Arquillian prince inside a “human” head, all the creatures are impressive and a great deal of sci-fi fun.
The jewel in the crown, though, is big bad Edgar, played by an increasingly unrecognisable Vincent D’Onofrio (now of Daredevil and Jurassic World fame). After only a few seconds of screen-time, Edgar is killed and turned into a grotesque “suit” by the crash-landed bug. As the film progresses, Edgar’s dead human body becomes more and more horrifyingly decayed. It’s genuinely hard to believe it was all achieved for real and it’s actually D’Onofrio in there somewhere.
The film was also nominated for two more Academy Awards: Best Art Direction and Best Original Score for Danny Elfman’s superb music.
What does jump out at you when rewatching MiB is just how simple and short it is. At just 98 minutes (including the opening and closing credits), it whips along at a no-nonsense pace – testament to an era when summer tentpole blockbusters were allowed to be less than two hours long. The plot is as basic as the good guys searching for a MacGuffin before the bad guy can get his hands on it.
Yet these are no criticisms. We get everything we need: an opening scene setting up what the Men in Black do and the fact K’s partner is retiring; an introduction to Smith’s NYPD detective; his hilarious audition for the MiB and subsequent induction; the chase for “the galaxy” (said MacGuffin); and a climactic fight scene. Boom, job done. Made now, this might end up at a bloated 140 minutes, full of backstory, exposition and needless subplots.
Interestingly, the ending was completely changed during production. Sonnenfeld has explained how the final confrontation with Edgar was initially more of a debate on the importance of life on Earth, before he and his team decided it needed more action. $4.5 million dollars was added to the budget by ditching this talky finale for the memorable and exciting spectacle it became, as J battles and distracts a fully CG bug until K blows it up from inside (and Linda Fiorentino’s Laurel then saves them both). It’s hard to imagine the film any other way now.
It may not be a classic of any of the genres it spans, and may not still be the most talked-about film franchise today (though the planned, now stalling, Jump Street/MiB crossover movie could change that) but the original is well worth revisiting. Luxuriate in Smith and Jones at their finest; a bright, cartoony adventure; lots of laugh-out-loud moments; awesome aliens and great gadgets (we all wanted a neuralyzer, right?).