Original US release date: July 2, 1997
Production budget: $90,000,000
Worldwide gross: $589,390,539
Based on the Marvel comic (yep), Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black just recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary. How old does that make you feel, huh? Upon its original release, the film was a smash hit, earning more than five times its production budget in worldwide grosses and establishing Will Smith as the king of the American Independence Day box office (after also hitting it big with . . . well . . . Independence Day, the previous year). Mixing action, science-fiction, special effects, and comedy, it was the right mix at the right time.
I always liked Men in Black, but I was never as enthusiastic about it as many others were. On practically every level, the film meets expectations, but rarely exceeds them. Sharing the lead roles in the film are the aforementioned Smith and the legendary Tommy Lee Jones, as Men in Black Jay and Kay, respectively. Both bring a welcome dry wit to the proceedings, and Jones, in particular, lends the film some prestige and legitimacy following his Best Actor Academy Award win for The Fugitive, a few years prior. They both seem to be enjoying themselves, which in turn helps the audience to enjoy themselves, as well. But the dialogue is honestly a little bland, and not nearly as witty as Smith and Jones convince us that it is. It is a true testament to their abilities that they are able to wring laughs out of a largely unfunny script with fair consistency. With stars of lesser talent, the project may have been dead in the water.
Speaking of talent, Vincent D’Onofrio gets some time in the spotlight, as well, as “Edgar”. I used quotations there because the true Edgar is killed seconds into his initial appearance, resulting in his skin being ripped off and worn by an alien throughout the duration of the film. I can understand the appeal of this part for D’Onofrio as it’s truly unlike anything else we’ve seen before or since. “Edgar” shambles around town, humorously trying to blend in with his surroundings while working towards a shadowy plan that can only mean bad things for Earth. D’Onofrio is outstanding (when is he not? Seriously, he’s one of the greats of our time.), making the perfect choices regarding vaudevillian physical comedy and vocal delivery. The tremendous makeup job only helps to ultimately make “Edgar” the most memorable aspect of the entire film.
Linda Fiorentino rounds out the cast, but really gets little to do, despite the signs that big plans were in store for her, down the road (and then jettisoned). She really deserved better, not only in this movie but in her career in general. She always seemed on the brink of superstardom but never quite got there.
Aside from the cast, the rest of the film is solid, but unspectacular. The action is fun and somewhat inspired, but often cut short and anticlimactic. The character designs are top notch, though, and I love the old-school, campy feel of the different alien forms. That’s where the films truly excels, actually: world-building. The different alien races, their social hierarchies, there biological systems, the jargon and vocabulary . . . the entire mythology fleshes the film out and elevates it above common fare. I may not have been over the moon regarding the script, but the thought put into crafting the framework that supports the film can’t be understated.
Still, it feels as if – much like Fiorentino – the film is always on the verge of becoming something special and then pulls back at the last second. Truth be told, in today’s landscape, Men in Black would have had a much tougher time becoming a hit. Not only have other studios – mostly Marvel – raised audience expectations but there is also simply much more competition to deal with, these days. Men in Black benefitted from existing during a time when gigantic blockbusters weren’t a commonality, even during the summer months. Now, from late-April through mid-August, there’s at least one new potential smash hit being released every week, and often two. In the summer of 1997, there were only about six potential barnburners: Men in Black, The Fifth Element, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Con Air, Batman & Robin, and Disney’s Hercules. Of those, only The Lost World and Men in Black truly broke out, as well as the surprise hit of the year, My Best Friend’s Wedding. It was a different time, and that worked in the favor of Men in Black.
Still, I enjoyed reflecting on the film. There’s a charm in its nostalgia as well as its more low-key approach. The film never feels as if it’s attempting to outdo another film or to lay groundwork for a franchise of six sequels. It tells its story, it does so with love, and then it leaves the door open for more, if we wanted it. And, we did. If it’s been a while, pop in Men in Black for a revisit. There’s nothing going on under the surface, no deeper significance to the film; it just wants you to have fun. We can all use that, right now. And don’t turn it off when the credits roll! Not because of a post-credits scene, but rather because you know you want to rap along to the song.
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