MEN IN BLACK - Blu-ray review

The fun is in the believing, and Sonnenfeld makes it easy to do that.

James Plath's picture

When you watch a catalog title in Blu-ray for the first time, you have the same kind of apprehension as you do when you walk into a theater to see the latest film starring one of your favorite actors. It was about 10 minutes into "Men in Black" when I realized that I was smiling--because of the characters and situations, sure, but also because "Men in Black" passed the Blu-ray transfer test. This 1997 film looks better than it ever has, with so much grain reduction that you really only notice it in the sky and backgrounds in less than a handful of scenes. And let's face it. The only thing better than watching a good movie is watching that movie in High Definition.

Based on a comic book by Lowell Cunningham (what would filmmakers do without comics?), "Men in Black" is part buddy-cop film, with a veteran training a new partner; part sci-fi film, with Planet Earth facing destruction because a group of insect aliens swiped a walnut-sized galaxy from another race of aliens; and part comedy-satire, with some awfully funny explanations as to why certain people on this planet behave the way they do, or how one of them "left the building."

Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith make a great team in this dramedy that has the two of them trading deadpan sarcastic barbs as often as they spot aliens roaming around Manhattan. You see, Jones plays K, a man whose past was completely erased so he could serve in the most secret of secret government agencies which was formed in the Fifties to "license and track aliens" on the planet. The first aliens came here for the same reason as other immigrants: seeking asylum. Now, we're told, there are 1500 of them on Earth at any given time, mostly in Manhattan. The bulk of them are content to go about their business impersonating humans (Newt Gingrich, Al Roker, and Sly Stallone are among the aliens shown on the agency's visual tracking board), but they have to be monitored to make sure things don't go terribly, terribly wrong. Sometimes they do. Make that frequently they do. That's when the MIB (Men in Black) people take to the streets to fight aliens using alien weapons. The first act is spent learning about this secret agency, which is funded not by Congress or taxes, but by patents from alien inventions they stole--products like Velcro and microwave ovens. All of the gags involving aliens and alien inventions are about as much fun in this film as the prehistoric inventions were in "The Flintstones." Add that to the tongue-in-cheek humor that comes from a strong script and you've got a film that's a cut above the standard save-the-planet fare.

The fun in the early going is watching K search for a new recruit, finally settling on a young NYPD loose cannon named James Edwards (Smith), who will soon be reduced to just J after he joins. In some buddy cop films the banter and the lines are so snappy it's like stars on a talk show interacting with the host. You're aware that the lines were written, they're so clever. I mean, who can think that fast constantly? The dialogue here is subtle enough to be believable, and that makes it all the more fun . . . and funny.

As John J. Puccio noted in his DVD review, Director Barry Sonnenfeld really does a fine job of "juggling the humor, effects, and thrills." It's a tonal high-wire act that really could have resulted in one big flop, but Sonnenfeld pulls it off with the help of a talented cast that "gets it." They all seem to be having a good time while playing it just right. It would have been easy to go too far off the deep end with this one, but Sonnenfeld steadies his cast so that their performances never make us feel as if we're watching a film adaptation of a comic book. Everyone is so spot-on that you start to believe that there might be aliens living among us, and that these MIB guys have maybe zapped more than a few of us with a flashing red light thingy that clears a person's memory so they have no knowledge of any encounter with aliens. It's like, "Clean-up in aisle four," and these MIB people are right on the site, ready to wipe everyone's slate clean while J and K pursue the bad guys, with the help (interference?) of the local coroner (Linda Fiorentino).

The plot here is simple: an insect assassin (D'Onofrio) lands on Earth illegally (not entering via airport terminal, the way the others do), whacks a farmer, borrows his skin, and ends up cruising around Manhattan in a pest control truck, looking to kill an alien royal and take the galaxy-in-a-nutshell in an act that could mean intergalactic war. But J and K's problems are more pressing. The Arquillians are approaching in a giant spaceship and have given the standard galactic week (one Earth hour) for the MIB to produce that galaxy or else they'll destroy the planet. Happens all the time, K tells J, who finds it all so hard to believe. But as they go about their Intergalactic business, it starts to get more believable scene by scene. That's one of the chief strengths of "Men in Black": it gets stronger as you go along. It's one of those films that doesn't just hold up over time--it gets better.

Picture-wise, "Men in Black" fans should be pleased with this release. Some of the scenes featuring that Frankenstinian fellow from another planet who's using a farmer's loose-fitting skin look the roughest, but even those scenes are sharper than in previous DVD releases. Sony has been using AVC/MPEG-4 encoding, and the transfers have been fairly free of artifacts. That's the case here. Colors are natural rather than brilliant, with those scenes starring Vincent D'Onofrio as the zombie-like alien looking a little tired and soft. But those scenes are thankfully few, and on the whole the 1080p picture (1.85:1 aspect ratio, which fills the entire screen) is a joy to watch.

The main soundtrack options are English, French, or Portuguese Dolby TrueHD 5.1, and while I can't say that the soundtrack rocks, the tonal quality is pleasant, there's a nice balance between treble/bass and between dialogue/music/FX, and there's just enough rear-speaker action to give you the surround experience. If the soundtrack falls short, it's in the area of ambient sounds in quiet moments (I know, you're thinking, When was there a quiet moment?). Well, there aren't many, but that's when you notice the rear speakers take a holiday. But I think we can nitpick audio-visual quality to death on these releases. When you get right down to it, everything's based on the master and the transfer, and you're going to get a product that's either overall very good or one that's disappointing. This release is overall very good.

There are a ton of extras here, but I have to say that this is by far the most sluggish of any Blu-ray I've reviewed-so much so that it was a real pain-in-the-butt to watch the bonus features. Everything took forever to load, with a response time so slow that I could go make a sandwich and not miss a thing. That's a problem Sony needs to address. Another problem for movie fans is that you'll need a magnifying glass to read the back of the box. I swear they're using 4-point type for some of the information. I realize that the smaller area of the Blu-ray boxes poses some design problems, and there's a tendency to want all the info on the box, but what good is it if nobody can read it?

Obviously, the load-time is the bigger issue, and it doesn't make you want to jump around the disc menu when you click on a few features that are disappointing. Let's start at the bottom: An "Ask Frank the Pug! Interactive Game" is so stupid that it isn't even on the level of that eight ball you'd turn over after asking a question. Original trailer and teasers? Nice to have, but . . . . Then there's a music video starring Smith and Mikey if you're into that sort of thing, art and photo galleries, all of which are marginal content. Then there's a "Scene Editing Workshop" that's a carryover from the DVD that's an exercise in exercise. If this was school, you'd think of it as busy work. So what features are worthwhile? Well, alien lovers will appreciate the Character Animation Studies, would-be filmmakers will think the Visual Effects Scene Deconstructions (with commentary) useful--same with the Storyboard Comparisons. Trivia lovers also might appreciate a multi-level, multi-player game that's good because it's so fast and you don't get second chances.

All the content is a carryover from the DVD, actually. Here as well is that short making-of feature, and for those who want to know how the concept evolved from the Cunningham comic, there's the roughly half-hour "Metamorphosis of Men in Black." The same commentaries are here as on the DVD, with Sonnenfeld and his visual effects and production design people from ILM doing a technical walk-through on how things were done. Those who have this on the DVD know that it's pretty well done, a non-stop lesson in filmmaking. A little lighter commentary track is provided by Sonnenfeld and Jones cutting up with a mix of stories and tech talk. This "enhanced telestrator commentary" which allows the director to "circle and create arrows on the screen" is nothing new, either. The enhancements can't change the fact that it's more of a distraction than anything. If this were a John Madden analysis of the Super Bowl, I could see it. But what's the point here? That "enhancement" is one Blu-ray add-on. But the main one is a BD-Live multi-player trivia game where up to eight players can play. The alien subtitle track is okay . . . but don't get me started on that dumb Pug game!

There's a lot here, but it's really a mixed bag. There are as many misses as there are hits.

Bottom Line:
It's all pretty "out there," but the fun is in the believing, and Sonnenfeld makes it easy to do that. He blends highly believable special effects with a tone that's just right, and he juggles the comedic and action elements with so much skill that it all comes together in a way that makes us wonder whether there really are aliens among us. A few suspects immediately come to mind. And J and K? Smith and Jones are as much fun to watch as any buddy cop team out there in movieland.


Film Value