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'Men in Black': Alienbusters

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 2, 1997

"Men in Black" is an alien abductee's worst nightmare come true. In this witty and stylishly offbeat sci-fi comedy, the Earth has become a "kind of like Casablanca, but without Nazis" for extraterrestrial war refugees. At any one time, the United States allows 1,500 legal aliens to live among us, mostly in New York. Of course, the government doesn't tell us they're here, maybe because of the way we behaved after Orson Welles's radio broadcast of "The War of the Worlds."

Anyway, these creatures look just like us, and their activities are constantly monitored by a team of crack covert operatives from an unofficial branch of the Immigration and Naturalization Service known as the Men in Black, or MiB. Equipped with shades, short-term-memory bleepers and an array of guns that look like outsize saxophones, the mysterious G-men track down undesirable illegals and send them packing. The truth is out there -- uh-huh, there is an invasion of scary aliens -- and the mysterious MiB squad is privy to it. But the price of this ultimate insider information is dear. Agents must sever all conventional human contacts lest regular folks learn the truth and cause a run on bread and milk or something.

Based on an obscure comic book series by Lowell Cunningham, this cheerfully perverse movie could just as easily have come directly from the text of a supermarket tabloid. Agent K (deadpan Tommy Lee Jones) regularly consults the lurid rags -- source of "the best investigative reporting on the planet" -- for news of rogues and extraterrestrial orbit-jumpers.

Underneath that human skin, the ETs are slime-squirting off-worlders with lots of flippers and fins. Created by special-effects Oscar winner Rick Baker, the beings are among the movie's chief delights with their squishy forms, screwy mannerisms and serious attitude problems. There's a creature capable of regenerating body parts, and a Troll doll-size being who dwells in the thalamic region of a hollowed head. And these are the good guys.

Agent K and his cocky new partner, Agent J (engaging Will Smith), are up against a "bug," one of the dumbest, meanest, ugliest, cussedest varmints in the known universe. After crashing his dilapidated saucer in Upstate New York, the cockroachlike fiend sucks the innards out of a burly redneck (hilarious Vincent D'Onofrio) and, wearing his victim's rotting body as a disguise, heads for Manhattan. There the mammal-hating insectoid causes war to be declared between Earth and another galaxy.

Will agents J and K and an attractive mortician (Linda Fiorentino) be able to stop the bug and save the world? Does Will Smith remind you of the cocky fighter pilot who helped save the world from cosmic cockroaches in "Independence Day"? And when did Earth become a giant roach motel?

Okay, so "Men in Black" isn't going to overtax any synapses. Ed Solomon's screenplay is clever, but like its pulp source, it's thin in terms of plot and character. A little more of either would have propelled the story past the lulls that befall the second act. However, director Barry Sonnenfeld, who demonstrated a knack for Gothic comedy in "The Addams Family," brings the same mischievous gleefulness to this deliriously macabre enterprise.

Men in Black is rated PG-13 for language and cartoon violence.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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