The original Men in Black came out at a time when Will Smith was at the height of his powers as a summer blockbuster wunderkind. And the pairing of Smith, bold and cocky and quick-witted, with the tight-lipped straight arrow that is Tommy Lee Jones was a match that struck gold. Aside from the pairing of Smith and Jones, Men in Black also came out at a time before alien fatigue had set in across the world. Alien movies are a staple of the Hollywood landscape, with nearly every other big-budget summer flick involving extraterrestrials in some for or another. While they were around in 1997, the well didn't seem as dry as it does today. And if this weren't enough, Men in Black had a fresh spin on the whole genre.
Smith plays, of course, a young hotshot New York detective James Edwards who we see early on cracking wise and bringing down baddies in the street. It just so happens that James Edwards has been recruited by a super-duper top secret organization who police Earth and hunt down aliens. James is recruited by K (Jones) a no-nonsense straight arrow agent who tells James he must help them to stop the threat of some aliens to blow up the world. These are intergalactic terrorists. Naturally, James doesn't buy in at first, it takes some coaxing and a handful of wisecracks before K takes him to see the "office."
Part of the joy of this first Men in Black is seeing this world of agents for the first time. It is a bright and vibrant world, and a funny moment comes when we see a list of known aliens on a big board and we can spot Sly Stallone and Al Roker among others. The men also have a great list of toys, including a red-laser mind eraser and a few fast cars. Eventually James - whose name is changed to J - is convinced and saddles up with K to thwart the alien terrorist plot. And the special effects explode all over the screen. Even for 1997 the effects are quite solid and convincing, especially in an early scene where an alien takes over the body of a farmer played by Vincent D'Onofrio and his skin hangs and is slack in a few spots.
The plot development always takes a back seat in films of this ilk. Basically, the development of the plot is a Macguffin set up to show off effects and extravaganzas. Director Barry Sonnenfeld, a known tech guru who writes tech pieces for Esquire magazine, directs Men in Black with less regard for plot and more regard for pure fun, and the final showdown between the Men and the monsters taking place in New York is a splendid payoff to everything that has come before. Smith and Jones also prove to be wonderfully charismatic companions, each with their own style to bring to the picture.
Men in Black II was a disaster. There is no other way to put it. Part of that misfire was due to the writer's strike back when films in the early 2000s were rushed into production. Fortunately, MIB2 is not vital to understanding the back story of these characters and the layout of this universe. To catch up on the players in the upcoming MIB3, I suggest looking right past the first sequel and enjoy the original for what it is. And who could forget about that catchy little jingle from Will Smith which accompanied the success of the film in the summer of '97?