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The F*ckin Black Sheep: Men In Black (1997)

THE BLACK SHEEP is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATH. We’re hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Dig in!

MEN IN BLACK (1997)

DIRECTED BY BARRY SONNENFELD

As if the memory-wiping Neuralyzer flashed before our very eyes…it’s damn hard to grasp the fact MEN IN BLACK turns 20 years old on July 1st. Man oh man, where the hell did the time go?!

It’s true though, folks. Barry Sonnenfeld’s international smash hit MIB – a silly, FX-laden cartoon marvel of epic proportions – celebrates its 20th birthday in a few days. But instead of feting the flick with effusive plaudits and fawning praise, I must be honest. As a family friendly, PG-13 mega-spectacle expressly intended for someone like me at the time (14 years old), I admit here and now that I wasn’t much a fan of the film then, and damn sure aren’t a big one now. The reasons? We’ll delve into them deeper below, but the short and simple of it is this: all style and no substance. Damn fine on the eyes, quite vacuous on the mind. Don’t get me wrong, I dig the chemistry between Agents J and K…the droll interplay between gregarious Big Willy Smith and laconic Tommy Lee Jones, but come on, witty banter a great movie does not make. Besides, the movie sways too drastically from the source material!

So yeah, despite the global commercial success and the critical mass appeal, we’re taking to MEN IN BLACK to task for the F*cking Black Sheep that it is!

Right off the bat however, we must concede what works so undeniably well with MIB. Its knowing sense of self-reflexivity. With tongue-in-cheek (on par with something like MARS ATTACKS) from the onset, MIB is very aware that it’s a silly, zany, over the top piece of pop entertainment that not only pokes fun at itself, but big budget blockbusters on the whole as well. The movie calls attention to its own absurdity, endearingly so. Yet, being in on the joke does not insulate it from being mostly unfunny. While there are no doubt a few laughs in MIB, while there are surely some colorful characters and impressively eye-popping visual gags in the film, it simply isn’t enough. In the end, MIB is akin to an extremely expensive TV dinner meant for the easy-access, spoon-fed microwave mentality. It’s big dumb fun entertainment, sure. It goes down easily, excreted even faster!

One of the key reasons I never really cottoned to MIB, aside from creating a world that feels so unrealistically otherworldly, too cartoonish and overly anodyne, is that it simply pulls from a pastiche of too many other movies while totally eschewing the darker elements of the forerunning comic. Hell, WB even offered John Landis a chance to direct, his decline of which based on what he deemed to be nothing more than Blues Brothers with aliens (Landis has since admitted ruing the decision). Not only are echoes of The X-Files reverberating throughout the film, pretty much every Odd Couple Buddy Cop film is re-appropriated as well…from DRAGNET and LETHAL WEAPON all the way to Oscar and Felix. We’ve seen this sort of push-and-pull before.

Aesthetically, there’s also a kind of superficial sheen to MEN IN BLACK that falls right in line with two other action movies from 1997. THE FIFTH ELEMENT and STARSHIP TROOPERS also have a similar stark artificial gloss that make the experience, no matter how entertaining the action, feel a bit too fraudulent to believe. There’s an inarticulable façade of plasticity to all three films that make them all seem little more than one giant motion picture toy. If flicks are for kids, then MIB succeeds!

But the main transgression MIB is guilty of is forgoing many elements of the originating comic for the mere extraterrestrial. Sonnenfeld and company turned a morbidly dark, biting horror comic into a soft, light, breezy jaunt of corporately mandated studio filmmaking. Anyone even remotely familiar with the 1990 comic series created by Lowell Cunningham knows that Agents J and K are pitted against all kinds of ghouls, from demons, mutants, zombies, werewolves, legendary creatures and other paranormal beings. Now that’s a movie worth making! Why ditch the harder horror aspects for mere alien invasion? Why turn a potentially badass property into a weak sci-fi tale for kiddies? Oh yeah, greenbacks. Always that!

To this point, the MIB moviemakers decided to defang the two agents by replacing their itchy trigger fingers with that damn Neuralyzer. Straight up, in the comics the two agents coldly kill any and all witnesses they deem too dangerous to live. In the movie, they simply erase their memories. How weak is that? Comedy was opted for in place of the coldblooded, a decision that not only betrays Cunningham’s comic, but makes the movie assuredly meant for toddlers and preteens. The need to commercialize the property in order to extract as much money as possible ended up bastardizing the source material.

Look, to say I hate MIB would be disingenuous. I just think the movie is far too beloved given all its dumb-downed incorrigibility. What could have been a genuinely scary adaptation of Cunningham’s comics ended up taking a safe, risk-averse approach to culling as many eyeballs as possible. So not only does the movie neuter the nature of the comics, it does so by giving us a tired and trampled buddy-cop dynamic that feels all too stale by 1997. In the end, MIB is little more than an expensive FX-driven extravaganza.

GET MIB ON DVD HERE

GET MIB ON BLU-RAY HERE

Extra Tidbit: Where do you stand on MEN IN BLACK?
Source: AITH

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