A year after 1996's hokey but financially successful disaster pic "Independence Day," Will Smith was still finding his way in the world of film (his major claim to fame, TV's "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," had also ended that previous year). "Men in Black" seemed like a no-brainer, taking the alien angle of his previous picture and turning it on its head with a sizable dose of comedy. Released over 1997's July 4th weekend, the Barry Sonnenfeld-directed Malibu Comics adaptation went on to gross $250-million at the box-office. Of this writing, nearly fifteen years later, a third movie in the franchise is set to open in a matter of days. How does the original hold up a decade and a half later, though? About as well as it did in '97, which is to say that it's still a forgettable, albeit harmless, trifle, so thin and slight that it seems to fade away even as it's still playing out. When it comes to sci-fi comedies, 1996's all-star Tim Burton romp "Mars Attacks!" was at least ten times sharper, smarter and funnier. On the positive, at least "Men in Black" is over quickly; its 98-minute running time is so streamlined the film hardly has time to overstay its welcome.
When his aging partner retires, the no-nonsense Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) must find a new recruit to join the Men in Black, a top-secret organization that polices and monitors the planet's rampant alien activity. He believes he's found the right guy in hot-shot NYPD Officer James Edwards (Will Smith), but with such a job, however, comes great sacrifice, including giving up his very identity. Renamed Agent J, he and K set out to investigate a farmer named Edgar (Vincent D'Onofrio) whom his wife Beatrice (Siobhan Fallon) claims was turned into an alien after a UFO crash-landed in their yard. With this bug-like extraterrestrial beneath Edgar's skin and headed for New York City, the new partners will have to work fast to save the Earth from complete demolition.
"Men in Black" opens with an attention-grabbing opening credits sequence, the camera following a bug through a nighttime desert landscape until it meets its unfortunate demise on the windshield of a truck, all played out to the ultra-cool, atmospheric sounds of Danny Elfman's top-notch music score. From there, the movie becomes a distinct underachiever, going through the motions of a screenplay by Ed Solomon (who went on to write another far superior alien comedy with 2000's "What Planet Are You From?
") that replaces imagination for a bunch of special effects and poor characterizations. The terminally gruff Tommy Lee Jones and fast-talking Will Smith would seem to be a good match in their very extreme differences in personality, but director Barry Sonnenfeld isn't particularly interested in this or their respective backgrounds. In a dreary supporting role, Linda Fiorentino thanklessly plays a morgue attendant who helps the guys in their investigation. "Men in Black" is exceedingly lightweight, too silly to concern itself with excitement or scope, and so the film too often resembles an extended episode of a quirky television series rather than a major summer tentpole. Offensively bad? No. But it's never been anything more than a promising wasted opportunity.