Barry Sonnenfeld, “Men in Black” (1997)
Very loosely based on the original comic series of the same name, in which a secret organisation called The Men In Black polices the activities of extraterrestrial aliens on Earth and keeps these hidden from the rest of humanity, this film turns the original source material into parody and satire poking fun at bureaucracy and secret intelligence agencies, and posits the notion that even underground organisations investigating conspiracy-theory / tinfoil-hat topics need new blood, new ideas and a fresh way of thinking to survive. MIB Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) needs a new partner after his old one retires when a mission proves too sticky for them both. Coincidentally a new potential replacement presents himself when New York City police officer James Edwards (Will Smith) pursues a suspect into a museum. Impressed with the cop, Agent K interviews him and encourages him to apply for a vacancy with the MIB agency. After undergoing various tests, in which he supplies original and wacky solutions, Edwards is accepted into the agency, his old identity and former civilian life are expunged from New York City records, and he becomes Agent J.
While all this is happening, an alien searching for an energy device called the Galaxy, cunningly hidden in a cat’s collar jewel, kills a farmer called Edgar (Vincent d’Onofrio) and takes on Edgar’s form, though it is very ill-fitting. The Edgar alien kills two other aliens disguised as humans and their murders are reported in The National Enquirer (a newspaper specialising in conspiracy theories and UFO sightings). Agents K and J read about the murders and Agent K guesses the Edgar alien is a “bug” (ie cockroach alien). The two agents consult an alien informant disguised as a pug dog and follow other information to find the Edgar alien having kidnapped a morgue coroner (Linda Fiorentino) and in possession of the Galaxy.
The plot is simple and straightforward to follow, though once Edwards becomes J, it no longer becomes interesting and the eccentric zany quality fades out. What the narrative ends up becoming is a standard crime caper with two agents who are mirror opposites in almost every way – Agent K is very much an organisation man while Agent J retains his individuality and quick-thinking, quick-talking flair even after his fingerprints have been burnt off and his old name has been forgotten. Jones and Smith work well together as a comedy team, and their chemistry together and mix of deadpan humour and wit hold the film together. D’Onofrio, Fiorentino and Rip Torn also hold their own well though Fiorentino is underused.
The central theme of the film could be summed up as “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, to use that old cliched proverb, as plenty in the film, including characters, plot twists and various other elements, have the element of surprise. Humans living unremarkable lives turn out to be aliens in disguise, an old car suddenly displays advanced technology, and a tiny gun packs an almighty punch and a huge recoil. The concept of individuality is examined, even if in a simplistic way: a man may lose his name and past but is his individuality, his sense of self, erased as well? Or will it be just a matter of time before Agent J becomes as much an MIB organisation man as Agent K? Will the real conflict be between Agent J in trying to maintain his individual style and way of thinking, and perhaps change the organisation, on the one hand and on the other the MIB agency itself in moulding Agent J into yet another faceless MIB agent and staying the same, at the risk of becoming stale and bureaucratic?
The film also has something pithy to say about the perennial issue faced by Western countries regarding immigration and how law and order institutions deal with illegal migrants. The lesson to be learned is that most migrants, even illegal ones, desire to lead normal lives and keep their heads down.