Morbidity suits Barry Sonnenfeld. Men in Black features more than its fair share of malignant moments, but it’s the turning point where Sonnenfeld went from a director of interest to a practitioner that looks at his craft not unlike an assembly line. And despite its occasional grotesqueries, the film, which details the exploits of a secret organization that looks after intergalactic relations between Earth and other planets, is far less ugly in its anti-governmental fury and strident cynicism than Lowell Cunningham’s intensely violent source material.
Cunningham’s graphic novels depicted the titular organization as a ruthless take-off of the C.I.A. and F.B.I., casting them essentially as agencies of radical xenophobia, casually killing off extraterrestrials and entire alien species to keep America safe; it’s not of little note that the agency also seems to be staffed entirely by Aryans. Sonnenfeld and Solomon, for better or worse, keep this decidedly bleak viewpoint out of the picture, focusing the action of the film instead on the MIB’s hesitant acceptance of new agent, Jay (Will Smith), to replace the aged partner of head agent Kay (Tommy Lee Jones in fine, flinty comic form).
The story loses its edge, but Men in Black remains an imaginative entertainment with flourishes of the giddily macabre that relies on very classical tools of cinematic storytelling, despite its heavy use of special effects. The master, Rick Baker, does some reliably stunning work with creature effects and makeup, offering a smorgasbord of otherworldly beings in the MIB offices and throughout the terrain of New York City, but the key to the film remains very human. The script, courtesy of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure scripter Ed Solomon, is zesty and impressive in its structural soundness, and the comic repartee between Jones and Smith gives the film an ecstatic pulse of buoyant humor and camaraderie. There’s also the great Vincent D’Onofrio as the human-skin-donning bug, Linda Fiorentino’s playful coroner, and Rip Torn’s Zed, MIB’s bellowing, sardonic head honcho.
And Sonnenfeld, working with DP Donald Peterman, gives the film an aesthetic zip that matches the script’s rapid-fire humor, his camera constantly sweeping, panning and dollying around with the energy of a floating extraterrestrial orb. Given more room to play and less plot to tend to, Smith and Jones might have reached a rampant comic rhythm closer to His Girl Friday than Point Break, but, thankfully, Solomon’s script and D’Onofrio’s performance give the central conflict enough weight and urgency to make this point moot. In fact, if there’s a genuine problem here it’s that the director and scripter are too successful at creating a solid entertainment, short-changing what might have been something a bit more. Sadly, we’re still regularly reminded that this issue is something not unlike an original sin in popular cinema, which Sonnenfeld, along with countless other talented practitioners, has now given totally into: striving for inclusion rather than embracing his distinct otherness.
Sony hasn't done much to clean up their original release of Men in Black on Blu-ray, but then, the original version was pretty excellent to begin with. Once you give up the ghost that this latest release is essentially a promotional item to drum up excitement for Men in Black III, the 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer is still something to really enjoy. Rick Baker's makeup and creature effects really shine, the detail and texture of each creature afforded superb clarity. Colors, from the copper tint of the Edgar bug to the gastronomic greens of the vomit wad that holds David Cross in place, look fantastic, as do the inky, pitch-perfect black levels. Audio is equally impressive, with the snappy dialogue up front and crisp, and Danny Elfman's expectedly rousing score mixing beautifully with a cornucopia of sound effects in the back. It remains a solid product.
The cavalcade of commentaries that Sony offers here is an overabundance of riches, allowing cast and crew to discuss the film from nearly every angle imaginable; top marks to Tommy Lee Jones, who is flat-out hilarious while speaking about his experiences and his character. But there's an inarguable blemish to this disc, namely the fact that the difference between this disc and the previously released Blu-ray from Sony is unperceivable, making the entire endeavor a bit of a scam. The trivia game and "Ask Frank the Pug" feature are fun for kids, but not so much for adults. A gallery of photos is also included.
Sony doesn't do much to spruce up their original, excellent transfer of Barry Sonnenfeld's big, fun monster movie, but the product remains a worthy one.