Monday, 21 June 2010

You know the difference between you and me? I make this look good.

No 409 - Men in Black
Director - Barry Sonnenfeld

This is such a brilliant concept - policing aliens who live secretly on Earth. However it needs to be handled just right, and this is why I think this film works so much better than its sequel (or indeed than the newly announced MIB3 (or MIIIB) doubtless will).

We're following NYPD cop James Darrel Edwards III, played by Will Smith in the early days of his action hero career. He meets a mysterious figure and is subsequently enlisted into this unusual organisation - The MIB.

Because, for all the Alien Hi-Jinks, this is actually a very standard film formula. Will Smith plays the cocky arrogant new recruit who is struggling to re-evaluate his preconceptions and fit into this new world. As his new partner says:
Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the centre of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you'll know tomorrow.

Agent Edwards is no more, for that is the title of an NYPD cop. He is now simply J. Or Jay, if IMDB are to be believed. He is joining the grizzled old agent K (or Kay). This is where Tommy Lee Jones really shines. He is an amazing actor, but his strongest talent is playing the world weary grizzled worker who is looking forward to retirement. Here he is the straight man to Will Smith's wise-ass disbelief.
I suppose, the part of the set up that I most enjoy is that Tommy Lee Jones makes the task of hiding aliens seem like a standard job, with the occasional exciting moment - like any other government desk job. There is a wonderful jaded undercurrent of 'just a job' running through his performance.

The recruitment process also proves to be interesting. I believe that (despite being made to look ridiculous) Jay actually passes all the tests.
The first test is a written exam where none of the recruits have anything to lean on. Jay (very noisily) drags a table across the room so he can use it. He has thus passed the test, as he is willing to work a room to his advantage and show initiative.
The second test is the shooting range. Where, if you watch it, I think Jay shows the ability to assess a situation and not make judgements based on physical appearance. Watch Rip Torn's reaction to Jay's explanation. There is a definite smile creeping across his mouth. And indeed, Rip Torn's character Zed only has one criticism - Jay doesn't respond well to authority figures. This would imply that he didn't balls up all the tests.

However, joining a new company is not enough to make a film. We need a plot, and it is here that a surprisingly dark plot comes in. Firstly there is a Galaxy and an Alien prince is guarding it. The alien prince is then killed by a 'bug' who wishes to steal the Galaxy.
But let us look at the Bug. An enormous cockroach who mauls a (rude and abusive) hick and wears his skin as a disguise. That is pretty creepy. We're talking Ed Gein inspired levels of creepiness. Especially the scene near the beginning where the Bug pulls back Edgar's skin to tighten around his sagging face.
Kudos to Vincent D'Onofrio who manages to play the character excellently. I especially like the portrayal of someone absolutely uncomfortable with the human body. His movements are rigid and irregular. He frequently has little muscle spasms and he also gets angry that he can't get his body to respond how he wants. It is a series of nice little touches which make the character far more rounded and realistic. Well, as realistic as possible.

The film shows a good Alien world. And yes the CGI might mean that everything looks a bit plastic and shiny, but it all seems to fit in with a wonderful 1950's view of sci-fi. Nowhere is that more true than with the 'Alien Technology' used by the MIB themselves. This seems to be a code word for Chrome. As we all know - Chrome is the metal of the future. And sure enough, everything that the MIB uses glistens with Chromey goodness.
The Alien world also allows cameos from two actors who get cast in these kinds of roles all the time. Carel Struycken (Sonnenfeld's go-to weird looking tall man) plays a freaky looking tall alien and Verne Troyer plays a little tiny Alien. Steven Spielberg also appears on a monitor showing aliens hiding all over the world. Therefore, like with Gremlins, he manages to cameo in films he produced. I might watch The Goonies today to see if he is in there too.

So, back to the plot. This one last mission is Kay's way of finding a replacement - he wishes to leave the MIB and offer his role to Jay. During the mission they have worked alongside a Dr Laurel played by the very beautiful Linda Fiorentino - She gradually gets more and more involved with the MIB - and in her coolest most bad ass moment she becomes an action hero, dishevelled and sporting a massive (Chrome, obviously) smoking gun.
And so, the film's coda is Kay retired and Jay and his new recruit L (or Elle - Laurel) in their MIB clothes. Now, there appear to be strict rules about the MIB. Let us quote Zed (can't be Z or he'd be pronounced Zee in the states):
You'll dress only in attire specially sanctioned by MiB special services. You'll conform to the identity we give you, eat where we tell you, live where we tell you. From now on you'll have no identifying marks of any kind. You'll not stand out in any way. Your entire image is crafted to leave no lasting memory with anyone you encounter. You're a rumour, recognizable only as deja vu and dismissed just as quickly. You don't exist; you were never even born. Anonymity is your name. Silence your native tongue. You're no longer part of the System. You're above the System. Over it. Beyond it. We're "them." We're "they." We are the Men in Black.

So despite their strict rules, the second Will Smith is left to his own devices he changes the dress code to look a bit more modern-cool. And loses the iconic chic of the smart black suit. It may have been used a lot. But it worked for the Blues Brothers and it worked for Reservoir Dogs. It works for the MIB. It is cool.

But let the Fresh Prince have his way.

His songs are just too infectious.

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