Sony // 1997 // 98 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Chief Justice Mike Jackson (Retired) // September 25th, 2000
Protecting the Earth from the scum of the universe.
It seems like so much longer than three years ago that Men In Black was in the theatres. But then, I have no concept of time, so it doesn't surprise me much. Finally, Columbia has released it to DVD with enough different editions to either confuse everyone or provide an option for anybody.
Frankly, there's not much to be said about the plot of Men In Black, because it is rather thin. It is the sort of movie that can be summed up in twenty-five words or less: A secret government agency recruits a NYPD cop to help police the alien inhabitants of Earth. Mayhem ensues. Wow, and with seven words to spare. I could write for USA Today.
Men In Black isn't the sort of movie you watch for the intricate plot, or sharply defined characters, or avant-garde direction. You watch it to be entertained. The way I see it, filmed entertainment can be divided into three categories: films, movies, and flicks. "Films" you watch for their redeeming qualities: their stylishness, their fine acting, their erudite storytelling, and you use words like "erudite" to describe them. At the other end of the spectrum, there's "flicks." Flicks aspire to do nothing less than entertain you. Your vocabulary need not stretch any further to describe them than to say, "Dude, that kicked ass" (okay, so maybe you don't need to say "dude," but it's part of my daily vocab so I used it here). Falling somewhere in the middle are movies, which aim to be both entertaining and somewhat advanced in the artistic side of filmmaking. I'd place Men In Black in the "flicks" category, because it's nothing but an entertaining thrill ride.
There's really only two criteria when judging flicks: do they entertain, and do they treat the audience with some intelligence. Something like, say, a Renny Harlin movie (the "auteur" responsible for "masterpieces" such as Cliffhanger and Deep Blue Sea), may be entertaining but presumes the audience is peopled with idiots. Men In Black treats the audience with a certain about of respect, drawing upon the shared cultural phenomena of the Men In Black. Whether they are an urban legend or reality is not even called into question, because the movie covers its tracks -- even if we had seen them, we would not remember. In fact, that's the way it treats anything in the story: with seriousness, not even doubting the reality of its fantastic events. Too often, flicks seem to be smirking at the audience, constantly calling into question their own suspension of disbelief. This trend at its worst resulted in John McTiernan's The Last Action Hero. McTiernan directed several great action flicks, including the best of the action genre: Die Hard. He reteamed with his Predator star Arnold Schwarzenegger for a story of a kid drawn into an action movie, who then points out all the genre's clichés. It's fun to a point, but it's hard to take a movie seriously when it doesn't even take itself seriously. It is the same thing that keeps Wes Craven's Scream from being as effective as a horror film as his Nightmare On Elm Street or Wes Craven's New Nightmare (which toyed with the genre but still took itself seriously). But I digress.
Obviously, if a movie is entertaining, there has to be a reason. For me, the reason Men In Black is entertaining has nothing to do with the three leads or its director. I'm not a fan of Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, or Linda Fiorentino. Will Smith is too, shall we say, ubiquitous. I grew tired of seeing him every Fourth of July weekend in another big-budget romp, first Independence Day, then Men In Black, then Wild Wild West. The endless parade of self-promotion accompanying each release is what really got me. I have nothing against Tommy Lee Jones, other than that he just plays the same dull, deadpan persona in every movie, with the notable exceptions of the crazy singing terrorist in Under Siege and the crazy acid-scarred district attorney in Batman Forever. He should play crazy more often. Linda Fiorentino strikes me as a prima donna after hearing of her antics on the set of Dogma (needless to say, I don't think she'll ever be welcome back in another Kevin Smith movie). Barry Sonnenfeld's resume will always be blighted by Wild Wild West. He should have stuck to what he did best: cinematography. He filled that role for three remarkable Coen Brothers films (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, and Miller's Crossing), as well as Misery and When Harry Met Sally.
The reasons (to this reviewer, at least) Men In Black is entertaining are its supporting actors and the masterful work of Rick Baker. The supporting cast features notables Vincent D'Onofrio, Tony Shalhoub, Siobahn Fallon, and David Cross. Vincent D'Onofrio is probably the most recognizable name out of this list. He is best known as the tortured private who kills himself in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. His other credits include Robert Altman's The Player, Spike Lee's Malcolm X, Tim Burton's Ed Wood (in which he appeared as legendary director Orson Welles), Strange Days, and The Cell. In Men In Black he shows a flair for physical comedy that has not surfaced in his other roles. I hope it's a trait he exercises more in the future. Tony Shalhoub is all but unrecognizable under his makeup in Men In Black as Jeebs, the shifty alien owner of a pawnshop. He is a gifted character actor, having appeared in a variety of small but memorable roles. Certainly one of my favorite was his role in Galaxy Quest as a stoner actor with a role on a "Star Trek"-ish television show. You get bonus points if you recognize the name Siobahn Fallon, and if you know which character she played in Men In Black. She was Edgar's downtrodden wife, and turned out some of the movie's best scenes in her five minutes of screen time. She is an alumnus of "Saturday Night Live," had a small role in Forrest Gump, and an influential part in The Negotiator. Lastly, David Cross. He is probably best known for "Mr. Show," the HBO sketch comedy series he headlined. He has a small part as a morgue desk clerk ("Thank you for making sure the bell works").
There are two big names in special effects today: Stan Winston and Rick Baker. If you want awesome animatronics, you get Stan Winston. If you want awesome makeup effects, you get Rick Baker. A short list of his greatest achievements includes Star Wars, An American Werewolf In London, Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video, Ed Wood, Wolf, The Frighteners, and the two Eddie Murphy Nutty Professor movies. No doubt Baker's most impressive work yet will be seen in two upcoming movies. For How The Grinch Stole Christmas, he will transform actors into remarkable likenesses of Dr. Seuss' illustrations, including Jim Carrey as The Grinch. For Tim Burton's "reimagining" of Planet Of The Apes, he has created over 500 unique ape costumes and prosthetics. For Men In Black, he created a vast assortment of aliens, both humanoid and otherwise, the likes of which have never before been seen in cinema. His work sets Men In Black apart from the sort of sci-fi aliens we are used to from "Star Trek" and the Star Wars series. I cannot see the movie being as entertaining or fun without his contributions.
2000 has seen the release (or the projected release) of some major titles. Many of these movies have been released in lavish detail in two-disc sets. Men In Black is no exception. However, I was slightly disappointed by the set. I'll explain. The first disc presents the film in 1.85:1 anamorphic and full-frame. The video shows few source defects, but has a very harsh, digitized, over-compressed feel throughout most of the film. Considering this is a Columbia release, I found that very surprising. Even their release of Blue Streak, similarly presented with widescreen and full-frame versions on a single dual-layered side, showed no such compression troubles. It is not particularly distracting, but it is noticeable. I would have preferred (and I'm sure most home theater enthusiasts would agree with me) to see just the widescreen version included so the video bit rate would not be sacrificed. Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and matrixed surround, and it fares better than the video. The 5.1 mix is very aggressive, extending deep bass to all channels (and fortunately, not overly relying on the LFE channel like some mixes) and enveloping the viewer in the action. Two scenes in particular stand out: the opening in the Arizona desert and the flying saucer crash toward the end of the film. When Tommy Lee Jones shoots Mikey, you're right in the middle of the spray of blue goo. When the saucer puts its giant skid mark in the ground, you'll feel it with our without a subwoofer attached to your system. And I mean feel it. Wow. This is the kind of sound mix that gets you excited about owning a DVD player with the full complement of sound equipment. Noticeably absent, however, is the DTS mix. If you want that, you'll have to spring for the single-disc edition as well.
Extras are what you want in a two-disc set, and extras you get with the Men In Black Limited Edition. I couldn't help but feel a little cheated though, considering this set came hot on the heels of the stunning Terminator 2: Ultimate Edition. The second disc (or side, depending on your configuration) of that set would keep you busy for six hours at least; I went through most of the material on Men In Black (commentaries excluded) in around an hour. The first disc includes the aforementioned commentaries: one recorded by director Barry Sonnenfeld and Tommy Lee Jones (with available "Mystery Science Theater 3000" style silhouettes as a subtitle), and a second track, also with Sonnenfeld, joined by Rick Baker and three other tech-heads. Both tracks are rather dry, but impart volumes of facts about the making of the film.
The second disc contains the set's goodies. They are divided into two sections: Creating MIB and Meet The MIB. Creating MIB provides information about the making of the film. First there is Visual Effect Scene Deconstructions. Two scenes are broken down into a multi-angle presentation showing the sequences from storyboards, through on-set shooting, through the addition of special effects, to the final product. You can choose to watch them with or without commentary. Metamorphosis Of MIB is a 23-minute documentary on the changes from the script's first draft to the finished film. As with any film -- especially special-effects laden ones -- it went through many drafts and rewrites, and much pre-production work was done to support earlier drafts and was eventually scrapped. Extended And Alternate Scenes presents five deleted scenes, or extended cuts of scenes from the film. Art And Animation presents a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the film's creatures and other otherworldly milieu. You get Character Animation Studies (multi-angle breakdowns of three characters), Creatures: Concept To Completion (concept art of five characters, with morphs between the individual shots), Storyboard Comparisons (split-screen comparisons between the storyboard and the finished film for three scenes), Conceptual Art Gallery, and Storyboard Gallery (for five scenes). Scene Editing Workshop is the coolest feature on the disc. It gives you the opportunity to edit together your own version of three scenes. You are given choices for individual shots within the scene, and you can select them to view a customized version of the scene. I got the impression that the footage was selected so that it was stacked against you -- inevitably, the scene from the movie is going to feel more polished and better. Finally, there is a Production Photo Gallery.
Meet the MIB includes promotional materials. Talent Files presents the standard complement of biographies and filmographies for the principal actors and creators. Will Smith's "Men In Black" video is presented in full-frame with 2-channel surround sound. Considering how good the song sounds when played in Dolby Digital 5.1 over the end credits of the film, one would wish that the video would have been remixed. The MIB Recommend is a trailer gallery for Men In Black and for other Columbia titles. You get the teaser and theatrical trailer for Men In Black, a "teaser" for Men In Black 2 (which is still in the very early stages of pre-production, so don't expect any footage from the forthcoming movie), and trailers for Ghostbusters, The Mask Of Zorro, Starship Troopers, and Bad Boys. Rounding out the section is the original six-minute featurette produced at the time of the film's production. It is your standard promotional piece.
I would be tickled pink about the Men In Black limited edition if it had been released before The Abyss, Fight Club, and Terminator 2. The latter has raised the bar so high for the two-disc set that I cannot imagine when we will see a release that will get the better of it. In other words, I feel very spoiled. The Men In Black limited edition is still a very worthy collection...it just feels a bit lacking when compared (however unjustly) to its peers.
Fans of Men In Black are encouraged to purchase the Limited Edition disc over the single-disc set. The extra features are well worth the extra $10 you'll spend. It may not set any new standards for presentation or extras, but it is well worth adding to your collective.
Without further ado, court is...hey, why are you putting on those sunglasses? What was that bright light? Where am I?
Review content copyright © 2000 Mike Jackson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* See Review For Complete Listing
* Official Site
* Will Smith Official Site