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'Men in Black': Alien Nation

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 5, 1997

The recent Pentagon report on aliens at Roswell, N.M., (which tells us there are no aliens) and the release of "Men in Black" (which tells us that the Earth is teeming with the suckers) have come together in some sort of delicious irony. Which one do you believe and which one do you laugh at? Whatever your choice, you can be sure of one thing, at least: "Men in Black" pumps much-needed humor into the whole conspiratorial, doom-and-gloom subject. We can finally chuckle at the idea that weíre not alone.

As with director Barry Sonnefeldís "Addams Family Values," the movieís completely on the surface. Itís all punch lines and sight gags, with its thematic concerns barely registering on the subatomic scale. If you retain anything after this movie itíll be because you took dutiful notes or youíre just weird that way.

For 98 soon-to-be-forgotten minutes, you can laugh at the extraterrestrial creatures who seem to have crawled, hopped and slithered out of Tim Burtonís bag (actually, theyíre the inventive work of creature-meister Rick Baker and Industrial Light & Magic). Most important, you can enjoy the chemistry between alien-bashers Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith, who show up for duty with two different approaches to comedy.

Smith is all sassy attitude, heís the Fresh Prince turned NYPD cop. And he gets to say his favorite phrase -- "Now thatís what Iím talking about!" -- at least twice. Jones, whose interior is almost as tough as his exterior, grounds his partnerís antics with a dour, sure deadpan. With their dark suits, shades and official just-the-facts demeanor, they suggest the Blues Brothers trying to make it through an episode of "The X Files."

When NYPD detective Smith is recruited by a mysterious government agent known only as K (Jones), he discovers a whole new vocation -- and a brave new world. Thousands of aliens, he learns, are either roving the planet in human disguise or rubbing flippers with each other in a government alien camp straight out of the "Star Wars" bar.

Itís the job of the organization -- the Men in Black agency (MiB) -- to track down these out-of-town scum, capture íem and book íem. One of the MiBís biggest occupational problems is keeping society unaware of its work. (We couldnít handle such trauma, see.) This means employing a flashing device called a Neuralyzer that erases the memory of anyone who happens to witness an MiB alien bust.

Smith, whose identity is erased and whose agency-given name is now J, is thrown into a mission right away. He and K have to save the world from a malevolent space maggot (in the hilariously loose-fitting human form of Vincent DíOnofrio) who plans to cause the usual, Earth-wide destruction. Their investigations bring them into frequent contact with Laura Weaver (Linda Fiorentino), a deputy medical examiner whoís too smart for her job ("I hate the living," she complains), and who proves very helpful.

The movie, which is based on the Lowell Cunningham comic book series, throws out some wonderful implications, but theyíre frustratingly few and far between.

"Is it worth it?" asks the soon-to-be J, as he considers working for MiB.

"Yeah, itís worth it," says K, "if youíre strong enough."

A comment like that suggests J will be emotionally -- as well as physically -- tested. But most of the time, his biggest problem is spattered alien slime. He doesnít need strength, he needs a good dry cleaner.

On another occasion, K declares that certain familiar innovations (e.g. Velcro, microwave ovens and liposuction) were actually plundered from captured aliens and are used to finance MiB. What a marvelous concept! But the movie never returns to this tip-of-the-iceberg revelation. Mostly, "Men in Black" (scripted by Ed Solomon) is about the laughable and the immediate:

"Your skin is half off your bones," says DíOnofrioís wife, after the unfortunate human has just been killed and his flesh used for the sinister maggotís outer shell. The alien yanks and pulls his fleshy face until itís stretched gruesomely across his face.

"There, thatís better," he growls.

Obviously, making a movie thatís genuinely funny and entertaining is already a great achievement (especially during the summer), but with a little more work, this movie could have been worthy of repeated viewings, a sci-fi gas for the ages. Instead, itís just the best yuk of the week.

MEN IN BLACK (PG-13) ó Contains minor violence and lots of extraterrestrial slime.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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