He Did Make It Look Good
Men in Black (1997)
It's crazy to think just how massive Will Smith's career was at one point. Coming off The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Smith parlayed his fame into starring stints in Bad Boys ($141.4 Mil Box Office against a tiny $19 Mil budget), Independence Day ($817.4 Mil), and then Men in Black ($589.4 Mil). Back-to-back-to-back successes, to say nothing of the albums he was continuing to release during that time. There was a time where Will Smith was considered the top of the A-list in Hollywood and the absolute King of Summer.
Of course, eventually that run did come to an end (thanks, in large part, to Wild Wild West) but Smith's massive hauls for three years in a row could not be understated. And while ID4 was certainly Smith's biggest hit at the time, Men in Black is the one Smith could hang on his cap as "his movie". Sure, he shared the billing with Tommy Lee Jones, but the film is all about him. It's not an ensemble, he's not the second-tier actor being "carried" by someone else (Martin Lawrence was the big name, at the time, in Bad Boys, coming off the success of his own sitcom, Martin. This was the Will Smith show.
And, frankly, it still works. There is no doubt that Smith was at the absolute top of his comedy game when Men in Black rolled out in the summer of 1997. This film perfectly accents his style, letting him play all the sides of his comedy persona, from bloviating guy in over his head, to sarcastic ass, wise cracking fool, and more. And yet, with this film, he also showed he could do action, a bit of drama, and more. Each of these sides had been shown off in some work or another previous in his career, but it's this weird little sci-fi comedy that really let him flex a number of his muscles while being the center of the show. At the time it was no wonder why this film went on to spawn a massive franchise.
The movie is all about Det. James Darrell Edwards III (Will Smith), a cop with the NYPD who ends up in a foot chase he can't quite explain. Despite looking like just some schlub, the criminal is fast, he's lithe, and he can do things no normal human should be able to do (such as climb sheer surfaces). Edwards is able to chase him down, though, which is no small feat, and this act garners the attention of Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), a man who works for a very secret agency. He invites Edwards to a meeting at their headquarters and, after a few tests, Edwards is admitted into the M.I.B: the Men in Black.
This organization tracks and, occasionally, hunts aliens. Beings from space live among us, and have for decades, and the MIB are responsible for keeping the peace, and preserving the secret of the existence of aliens. And that secret will be hard to keep when a new threat comes to Earth, a massive bug hellbent on collecting "the galaxy". Whatever this item is, the bug -- now wearing the awkwardly fitting skin of a hillbilly named Edgar (Vincent D'Onofrio) -- wants this item so he can use it to fuel an attack on the universe. Whatever K, and the newly redubbed Agent J, have to do they must as the entire fate of Earth depends on it.
For all its comedy, and action, and everything else in the film, what the first Men in Black does so right is it sets stakes. From the second the bug arrives on Earth the film clearly outlines just what kind of threat he is. He kills, he eats people, and he does it without any kind of mercy. Ruthless and efficient, he's someone that has to be taken seriously. So even while the agents go about their business, dealing with ridiculous things in ridiculous situations, those stakes keep the movie pushing forward. They set the movie up so that you care about what happens next.
Loosely based on the comic book The Men in Black, the film does sort of work as a superhero tale. These guys might be human but they have access to powerful tech that seems otherworldly. Plus, they're dealing with threats to their city (and the world) that no normal person can handle. What's so impressive is that this film came out before the big superhero book started by Spider-man and the X-Men, and while it doesn't stay entirely true to the source material, it doesn't play it like it's kiddie pap either. This film invests in its concept, comedic as it is, and that helps to make this feel like a solid comic book adaptation.
Aiding things, of course, are the leading men (in black) at the center of it all. Not enough can be said about how Will Smith carries this film. He effortlessly goes from scene to scene, letting everything roll around him as he reacts and interacts with this ridiculous world. Smith gets credit for his persona, and his line deliveries in his various films (everyone, even now, can quote his line from ID4, "welcome to Earth") but what Men in Black highlights is just how strong he is as a reacting comic. The film very often has him play the straight man role, and his glances, his reactions, and his surprise takes add so much to the comedy.
But then, Tommy Lee Jones is a required element of the film. If Will Smith lets the ridiculousness roll around him, Jones is able to act like the ridiculous isn't even all that strange at all. His character, K, has been in the MIB for three decades and he's seen and done it all (a purposeful plot point by the end of the film). Jones acting like this is just another day in the office helps to sell the world of the film while also adding his only bristly brand of comedy to the film. It's the Will Smith show, for sure, but the dynamic wouldn't work right with someone else in Jones's role.
of course, it does help that the film is directed with such assuredness by Barry Sonnenfeld. Likely best known for directing the two fantastic Addams Family films -- 1991's The Addams Family and sequel Addams Family Values -- Sonnenfeld was the perfect fit for the director's chair on this movie. He has a way of making the implausible seem plausible, the silly believable. He would go on to direct all three of the Smith-starring Men in Black films, giving them all his confident eye, and you can just feel a strong voice at work on this movie.
What I appreciated most of all was how timeless this film film. Aside from a few pop-culture references (Dennis Rodman being an obvious example), the film shies away from dating itself in any real way. That preserves the idea that this could happen now, tat this is an adventure for modern audiences. It keeps the film watchable and interesting even as we go on 25 years since its release. It's just a strong contender for best comedy of the 1990s.
The sequels might not be as fondly remembered (and the further collaboration between Sonnenfeld and Smith, Wild Wild West, was outright hated) but that doesn't tarnish the legacy of Men in Black). This is a great film that, all these years later, remains just as funny as always.