Men in Black, with a couple of decades distance, is possibly the oddest pre-millennial blockbuster ever made. It’s marketed as the story of a young hip NYPD officer discovering the true nature of the world and there’s certainly a lot of that. But there’s also a unique and memorably horrible villain, moments of genuine poignancy and poetry in the script, the least authoritarian government agency ever and one single, deeply weird fact that is key to its success;
This is the final movie of a trilogy we’ll never see.
We’ll get to that, but first, Agent J. This is regarded by some as the moment Smith really broke out but the truth is this lands solidly in the middle of the first act of his movie career. Bad Boys was already on the books by this point, as was Independence Day and Six Degrees of Separation. Following this, he’d go onto the extraordinary Enemy of the State, the gloriously weird Wild Wild West and out into the badlands of his early second act. So he was both definitely bankable at this point and a proven, versatile talent. That’s why the early scenes here are so weird. J is very much the Fresh Prince of the NYPD. Fast talking, massive issues with authority, unique style and ever so slightly unable to cash the checks his mouth keeps writing. It’s a fun role, and you can see Smith enjoying himself but it’s not a stretch. Perhaps thats why I like Men in Black 3 as much as I do. Here he’s doing (very good) schtick. There, he’s playing an evolved character.
But even second gear Smith is fun Smith and he does good work throughout. Also, crucially, he lands the movie’s two best moments. The first comes when K tells him everything he’s about to know and everything he’s going to have to give up. Leaving J on a bench and giving him till sunrise, the moment is played silently and brilliantly as we can see Smith weighing up every option before making his call. If the first act is Fresh Prince of Men in Black, this is Six Degrees of Men in Black.
The second moment is the penultimate scene. When K finally explains what’s really going on and walks J through how to use the Neuralyzer, he finishes the speech with ‘See you around, kid.’ The combination of sadness, relief and determination with which Smith replies ‘No, you won’t.’ Tells you everything about this weird broken organisation and the difference between the agents who leave and the agents who come in.
What turns one into the other is the adversaries they face and I’d argue that no Men in Black movie has come close to Edgar the Bug for villainy. Vincent D’onofrio, reportedly largely left alone to build the role himself, does extraordinary work here. There’s a brutal joi’de’vivre to his work here and a consistent sense of an actor having a LOT of fun. I especially love the jaunty little ‘morning!’ Nod he gives a passerby as he shuffle struts down the street, skin distorted and the colour of the recently dead. Better still, the special effects retain D’onofrio’s exuberant menace, giving Edgar far more of a personality than any of his successors. The moment in the finale where J steps on a cockroach, Edgar flinches and J realises exactly what that means is brilliant because it’s earned, Dark as Hell and sees him finally figure out his job. The Men in Black don’t win by being bigger and tougher than who they’re fighting. They win by being smarter and meaner. J, who starts the movie barely physically overpowering an alien, ends it by outthinking one. And even then, he and K are both saved by a civilian. The power dynamic here is broken and weird and brilliant and something the series basically never returns to.
Butt what really makes the movie sing, even now, are the moments of poetry that make it to the screen. Ed Solomon’s script embodies the exhausted beauty of the universe in countless little grace notes that have an emotional weight you never see coming. K neuralzying his first partner, the repeated motif about how no agent looks at the stars anymore. The slowly unfolding realization that almost all the field agents of MiB are old white men. The moment on the bench, the moments J sees New York through new eyes. This is a movie couched in the fear and paranoia of the UFO flaps of the past but viewing them with genuine awe and love. The universe is vast and dangerous. The universe is vast and beautiful. MiB stand in the breach and fight the first to protect the second. It’s lovely writing and honestly if you see the movie for nothing else, see it for this speech.
All of this, along with a spirited cameo from Rip Torn and some excellent work from a chronically under used Linda Fiorentino make Men in Black a must watch if you’ve not seen it before. But, for me, what really puts it over the top is the movie’s willingness, desire even, to play very fast and loose with the rules of the blockbuster. Or rather, then expectation that a blockbuster is going to tell a neat, tidy story. Because fundamentally, this is Men in Black 1 but it’s also K Part III.
Tommy Lee Jones is stunningly good here, so much so I’m amazed he wasn’t nominated for anything for this work. His K feels like a complete, well rounded character the second we meet him and as the movie goes on we see the cracks in his armour open up in the exactly way he doesn’t. The nasty little smile when he gets confirmation that Edgar is a bug, the offhand way he basically tortures Jeebs for information and especially the first time he and J meet are haunting precisely because of how underplayed Jones is. In particular, his delivery on ‘’Did he say when?’ To J draws him and you alike up short. The message is that this man means business and the movie reinforces that over and over. From the early, beautifully subverted border stop to K getting eaten in order to get his gun back, this is a man who has been wrong footed once and been traumatized so desperately by the experience he’s vowed t make sure it never happens again
But there’s even more to it. The fact he gets progressively happier as the movie goes on. K is a man running towards a good death, unsure of which version he’ll get but knowing that doesn’t matter. Either Edgar kills him and J saves the world or he kills Edgar and J takes over. His watch is ending either way, so why not take a little joy in his work? Throw in the reveal in MiB 3 that K has basically been setting up J to take his spot his entire life and you have a man who is one part hero, one part manipulative sociopath. The Doctor, most of him, would nod approvingly at J’s actions. More recent incarnations not so much.
Men in Black is weird, dark, sweet and funny. it’s also imperfect and the treatment of Linda Fiorentino’s Agent L is the start of an entire franchise of tedious, off the shelf approaches to female characters. If you can deal with that though, this is an exceptionally fun piece of cinema powered by two genuinely great performances. It’s a neat, tidy narrative too. Which, as well see, may ultimately be a problem…