it isn't even the Fourth of July and already moviegoers might feel like it's time to put in for battle pay. With the exception of John Woo's delirious "Face/Off" (the work of a born filmmaker operating at loony fever pitch), the summer movies all seem like they were made by SWAT teams without a sharpshooter among them. Coming out of "The Lost World" or "Speed 2," you feel like asking the nearest person on the sidewalk if they happened to get the number of that truck that just ran over you and backed up a few times for good measure.
That's why "Men in Black" comes as a nice surprise. For a picture being sold as a big-budget special-effects comedy, "Men in Black" is surprisingly, pleasingly modest. The movie isn't assaultive or stupid or mean-spirited. Behind its mask of deadpan goofiness, it's a friendly, clever picture, one that doesn't feel untouched by human hands. And at an hour-and-a-half, it doesn't wear out its welcome. What there is of a plot involves Will Smith as a young New York City cop who accepts an offer from agent Tommy Lee Jones to become part of a super secret agency (so secret even the government doesn't know about it) charged with monitoring extraterrestrials living on Earth. Oh, yeah, they have to locate some gizmo to save the planet from a strain of invading evil aliens.
If there were a stronger narrative drive to Ed Solomon's script (taken from Lowell Cunningham's comic book), the movie might be truly memorable instead of just genial and quirky. "Men in Black" is a picture put together by very bright people, just not by crazily inventive ones. That's what keeps it from being in the same class as "Beetlejuice" or "The Frighteners." It's a smooth ride, but it never takes flight. Even so, there's almost always something worth looking at, and Solomon and director Barry Sonnenfeld ("Get Shorty") don't keep you waiting long between gags.
The whole idea of a sort of INS for extraterrestrials becomes an excuse for an extended vaudeville routine, and Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones play off each other with unforced, expert timing. Jones' performance here is the exact opposite of the cackling scenery-chewing he did as Two-Face in "Batman Forever." He seems completely relaxed, and gets the biggest laughs by taking every weird, slimy thing that oozes across his path in stride. Jones knows just how to use his stony face and sudden smiling bursts of back-slapping enthusiasm to maximum effect. It's an old pro's performance. And it's more enjoyable because of the pleasure he clearly takes in Will Smith's casual confidence.
Taking a cue from Jones, Smith doesn't come off as cocky or in-your-face. The movie takes place during Smith's first two days on the job, and he nods politely at all the creepies and crawlies he encounters -- things his partner has long become used to -- as if a wacko just took the seat next to him on the bus. Smith's sleepy, liquid eyes seem to be constantly asking us "Ain't this some shit?" He's immensely likable, and he gets some sassy backchat going with Linda Fiorentino, as a coroner who knows something is up when bodies keep turning up on her slabs. Maybe because the movie uses her sparingly, Fiorentino doesn't get tiresome as she does when she's left to do her usual insolent smoldering number unchecked. Her scenes give the movie a needed dash of tartness.
As Smith and Jones' boss, Rip Torn doesn't have nearly enough to do, but his comic gruffness is welcome. And as a nasty cuss of a farmer overtaken by aliens, Vincent D'Onofrio, stumbling around with his head at an odd angle and folds of skin hanging off him, doesn't do much more than snort and drool whenever he's on screen, but he made me laugh a lot anyway. He's like a cross between something from "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and a haywire carnival ride. Of all the second bananas, Siobhan Fallon (formerly of "Saturday Night Live") as D'Onofrio's wife, is funniest. Like Vicki Lawrence on the old Carol Burnett show, Fallon's face seems stuck in a perpetual sag of deadpan incredulity.
I'm going to refrain from repeating the gags (it's best to see "Men in Black" quick before you start hearing about them), though I can't resist mentioning the discovery that the 1964 World's Fair was actually an alien landing sight ("Why do you think it was held in Queens?") or the long silver gadget Jones uses to erase the memories of people who've had alien encounters (it's the movie's slyest joke that these top-secret operatives work exactly as the UFO conspiracy buffs claim they do). And there's a great quartet of aliens, lecherous snail-like things who we see hanging around the agency break room, sucking down coffee and gossiping about the new girl in accounting, and later hightailing it off Earth after a visit to the interplanetary duty-free. There's also a touching moment when Fiorentino, in the middle of an autopsy, finds a small, dying alien working the controls inside a body he was using as a cover. As the creature expires, its pet, an orange tiger cat, watches and lets out a small mew of mourning.
"Men in Black" leaves an agreeable aftertaste, though one thing sticks in my throat. The flirtation between Smith and Fiorentino looks as if it's going somewhere after she tells him he has beautiful eyes, but it gets left by the wayside. And I'm not willing to chalk that up to bad plot construction. Especially after the same thing happened a few months back with the burgeoning attraction between Wesley Snipes and Diane Lane in "Murder at 1600." There's a famous story of how, in 1968, General Motors freaked out when Petula Clark touched Harry Belafonte's arm on a Christmas show the corporation was sponsoring. The studios aren't quite that nuts, but considering that it's 30 years later, they're close. Genre films are full of routine love interest. Why can't one of those be between a black man and a white woman?
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