So why am I reviewing a 15-year-old kid-oriented action/sci-fi flick? I could tell you that it was because I was low on my quota of hyphens for the month, and the previous sentence helped me get rid of four more of them. But that would be a lie. I use considerably more hyphens than the average person. My quota gets met and exceeded month in and month out.
Obviously, the real reason is that I’m heading off to see Men in Black 3 today. Since I hadn’t seen either of the first two films in years, I thought I would rewatch them to get myself back in the mood. And since I was going to watch them anyway, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to get a couple blog posts out of the experience.
This isn’t going to be a full-fledged review, though, so much as it is a reflection on the original Men in Black. When I watched it as a teenager, it was one of my favorite movies of all time. Coming back to it fifteen years later is a great benchmark for measuring how much I’ve changed. As it turns out, that’s quite a bit. Time has altered my perceptions of the movie so that while I can still see what my teenaged self loved about Men in Black, and I can even still share the experience at a couple of points, I still long for something deeper and mourn what I see as some missed opportunities.
Surely you’ve seen Men in Black by now. So you know the basic ideas you have to take seriously in order to follow the movie. First, aliens are real…and not just one species, but thousands. Second, some of them are living among us, some are threatening us, and there is a little overlap between those two groups. Third, the only thing standing between our peaceful little planet and the rest of the galaxy are a group of anonymous men in nondescript suits who protect us from both harm and the knowledge of harm.
From there, the story practically writes itself. Tommy Lee Jones plays K, an older agent who’s been with the Men in Black since their inception. Having just neuralyzed his partner (erasing all memories he ever had of his time with the MiB), K goes looking for a replacement. He finds one in NYPD policeman James Edwards III (Will Smith), an unorthodox choice but one who has already proven he can handle himself against an alien. When Edwards passes the training tests with flying colors, using his lateral thinking and keen observance to best a number of highly trained military officers, K recruits him to the agency. Edwards’s identity is erased, and he becomes simply J. But he isn’t exactly eased into the job. On his first case, J finds himself helping K battle an alien who has committed a political assassination and is trying to steal an entire galaxy. If the two agents don’t recover it, its rightful owners will lay waste to our planet.
That is the angle of the film that still works for me without question. As K puts it: “There’s always an Arquillian battle cruiser, or a Corillian death ray, or an intergalactic plague that is about to wipe out all life on this miserable little planet. And the only way these people can get on with their happy lives is that they do not know about it.” It makes perfect sense that any organization like MiB would have to operate in the dark. Their agents go around saving the world, cleaning up a thousand little messes, and erasing memories and evidence as they need to. They don’t get properly thanked for their job because they can’t be. But they do it anyway because they know how important it is. As I understand it, this take on the story diverges from the source comic, where the Men in Black are much closer to the shadowy figures touted by conspiracy theorists. If that’s true, I can only congratulate Ed Solomon, or whoever came up with that shift. It makes the main characters sympathetic, and it allows for a fun mixture of humor and light tragedy instead of the darker tone that the original premise would have played into.
How well that mixture actually works, on the other hand, is very much in question. A certain amount of humor is both inevitable and necessary, but the jokes and scenarios that have aged the best are typically the lowest-key ones, or at least the ones that have low-key components. A perfect example of the first type is the opening scene, when a team of Border Patrol agents stopping a carload of Hispanic immigrants crossing the border illegally suddenly learn that there’s a whole other side to the term “illegal alien” of which they had previously been unaware. Maybe the biggest laugh-out-loud moment in the whole movie comes as J (in the background) assists in an alien birth that turns very bizarre very quickly while K carries on a matter-of-fact interrogation right in front of us. What is, to J, an incredible occurrence is simply an ordinary day at the office for K, and the movie gets its best comic mileage out of moments that make that dynamic clear.
The problem is that sometimes that humor simply goes a bit too far, sliding from sly japery into outright farce that damages the movie. And when it does, Will Smith is usually onscreen. When I was growing up, Smith was just re-making a name for himself with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, so it’s sometimes hard for me to remember that there is now a whole generation of kids who are more familiar with Will Smith the actor than Will Smith the comic. Getting reacquainted with the younger Smith was a mixed bag. Certain lines left me laughing. Others left me rolling my eyes. And the trademark rap song under the credits…well, there are some things best left in the past. Overall, though, he does give an effective performance, even if it’s not quite as “cool” as my younger self thought it was. A little of that schtick goes a long way.
On that topic, what the adult me most noticed – that I think the teenage me would have missed – is how much this movie is carried by Tommy Lee Jones. Smith has the relatively easy job: to mug for the camera and overreact to all the crazy things that happen. But Jones has to make us believe in this world. And he does it. To the extent this movie works, it works because of his understated performance. In the process, he does what neither Smith nor anyone else in this movie (especially not Vincent D’Onofrio, who I hope has the decency to be a bit ashamed of the performance he turned in here) does: he creates a character. We never really get to know James Edwards before or after he becomes J, but we get to know K very well indeed. If he thinks something is dangerous, we know it must be. When he takes a moment to reminisce over what might have been, we feel for him as we feel for no other person here.
That’s actually the last thing I want to talk about, the thing I wish we got to see more of. The people who volunteer for MiB essentially have their entire lives erased. We can only imagine the lengths to which the agency has to go to separate its agents from their former lives. Confiscating and/or destroying paper records? Neuralyzing all the people who knew the agent? Disposing of property and possessions? Almost certainly the answer is: all of the above, and more. A better movie would have shown us more of the anguish this must cause. One scene where J is shown dropping by his mother’s place, or spying on a friend, would have done wonders when it came to making up for this gap. As it is, the movie feels incomplete to me as an adult because it never really addresses the issue.
Could you simply walk away from my life, from the people you know? I know I couldn’t. And once you start asking yourself questions like that, you realize how much depth there could have been beneath this glitzy surface. What happens when an agent goes rogue? (It must happen from time to time.) With a neuralyzer at their disposal, they would be able to alter memories and hide from their pursuit pretty much indefinitely. What happens when on-the-job accidents result in more than property damage? Should a bystander die, would they simply be neuralyzed out of existence, or would another explanation for their death be found? What provisions are there for returning an agent to their former life, and how do they explain away certain things? (“I notice you don’t have any fingerprints. Care to explain? I’ll wait.”) The fact that these questions aren’t answered in the movie doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it does that I’m sure they weren’t even thought of. Instead, we get jokes about how the agents live on a 37-hour day and how a galactic standard week is a single hour. A sugar-loaded kid with no life experience could overlook that sort of thing. An adult? Not so much.
I suppose the response would be that addressing such difficult issues would be commercial suicide in a big summer blockbuster. And I suppose it would be, too. It would probably be wrong of me to complain too much, considering what this movie does have to offer: big special effects, a fast pace, a rapid-fire succession of jokes. As a popcorn movie, Men in Black is still one of the best ever made.
It’s just that it could have been more.