"Men in Black"

Director Barry Sonnenfeld and star Tommy Lee Jones talk about aliens, in-jokes and making a perfect summer movie.

By Jeff Stark

Published November 22, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

"Men in Black"
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld
Starring Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Linda Fiorentino, Vincent D'Onofrio, Rip Torn
Columbia Pictures; widescreen 1.85:1
Extras: Commentary with Tommy Lee Jones and Barry Sonnenfeld, making-of documentary, music video, trailers, production notes, lots more

"Men in Black" is a perfect summer movie. Nominally a sci-fi flick based on the Malibu comic, it's more of a straight-ahead comedy-action movie; it's not "Blade Runner" smart, but it's not exactly trying to be either. It wants to give you a little more than just something fun to go with your popcorn. So it looks fantastic: the coolest used-furniture store on Earth, populated by friendly moppets, massive garden slugs and sharply dressed G-Men. And the pacing goes fast: To speed the plot along there are visual jokes galore, one-liners worth repeating and extended riffs that burn through the film's economical 90 minutes before the audience knows what's happening.

Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones play a pair of detectives in charge of policing 1,500 aliens who live on Earth, mostly in New York where they won't be noticed among the weirdoes. Smith is a too-cool, wisecracking N.Y.P.D. officer recruited by Jones to join the interplanetary Immigration and Naturalization Services. Jones is the veteran who's seen it all. He shakes down a talking pug dog for information, sings along to Elvis while driving on the roof of a tunnel and calmly retrieves a pair of super guns out of the trunk of his super car to take down a spaceship that could doom Earth. The audience gets to wander through the movie with Smith, who has never been more charismatically cocky than he is here. And then there's the added joy of watch Vincent D'Onofrio as a redneck possessed by a giant cockroach stumble, struggle and punch against his own skin.

The DVD commentary track, with Jones and director Barry Sonnenfeld ("The Addams Family," "Get Shorty"), helps slow down the action a bit and point fingers toward some of the jokes. (For example, a screen that monitors alien activity turns up photos of Sylvester Stallone and Richard Simmons.) The pair also highlight a few of the nice details, including virtually every speck of Bo Welch's production design, based on a terminal at JFK Airport and the furniture of architect Eero Saarinen. Animation sequences that show how the special effects work allow watchers to better appreciate some of the character designs and the puppetry behind them. There's an even more extensive fetishization of the weapons and some of the aliens in a vast archive of production stills.

A few cut scenes and Sonnenfeld's commentary reveal how a complicated plot in the original script was overhauled in post-production by changing only two scenes. This tiny move, which radically changed the film, was a smart decision: Any complication in the plot would needlessly get in the way of a film that just wants to cruise through to the part where the good guys get to save the world and go home.

Jeff Stark

Jeff Stark is the associate editor of Salon Arts and Entertainment.

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