MEN IN BLACK – DVD review

There was never any doubt that Will Smith would be funny; I mean, he’s a very funny guy. What comes as a pleasant surprise is how funny Tommy Lee Jones is. The teaming of Smith and Jones for comedy sci-fi took for granted that Smith would be the comic and Jones the straight man. So who would have guessed that Jones would get some of the biggest laughs.

“Men in Black” was among the funniest movies of the nineties, due in no small measure to the near-perfect collaboration of its two leads and the equally amusing contributions of its costars, Linda Fiorentino, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Rip Torn. Together with its solidly silly script, adroit pacing, superlative special effects, great sound and picture, and oodles of bonus materials, Columbia TriStar’s Collector’s Series DVD is a must-buy for anyone interested in the art of absurd action-comedy.

Based on the comic-book characters created by Lowell Cunningham, “Men in Black” is built on the premise that space aliens live among us. Cunningham said his inspiration came from UFO mythology, which holds that since the early fifties, secret government agents (dressed in black) have been discouraging witnesses to paranormal encounters from saying anything about them. Cunningham and the film extend that thesis to its illogical but hilarious conclusions: that Earth has for long been a way station for galactic visitors, a kind of Casablanca for interstellar travelers; that the planet is practically infested with exotic creatures posing as normal humans; and that the government must monitor and keep track of them all. You thought your third-grade teacher was a little peculiar? Well, now you know why.

The plot is divided into two areas. The first part is given over largely to Will Smith’s character’s recruitment into the top-secret government agency known as MiB. Smith plays a New York City cop who is very good at what he does. So good, in fact, that he impresses MiB Agent Kay (Jones) enough to persuade him to join up as his new partner. Unluckily, however, that means having one’s identity erased, starting over as a non-person with all previous records deleted. Once Smith becomes Agent Jay (or J), the film chronicles his reactions to the amazing sights he’s introduced to. Among the many gadgets he encounters is a small, hand-held “flashy” device that erases a person’s memory, something the Men in Black do very efficiently. It comes in handy when trying to convince witnesses to alien run-ins that they didn’t really see what they thought they saw. Government cover-ups were never so effortless or so fast.

The second part of the film, neatly integrated within the first part and beyond, deals with the agency’s attempts to avert nothing less than the destruction of the world by an alien race bent on recovering what appears to be a small, blue marble containing a galaxy. (Yes, an entire galaxy of billions of stars. These guys are playing for all the marbles, or they’ve lost a few. Maybe the whole universe is nothing more than a lint speck on God’s lapel. But it’s best not to probe too deeply into the logic of the plot turns.)

Also bent on obtaining the marble is a bug, played to hilarious effect by Vincent O’Onofrio. The bug is an evil alien critter, something like a giant cockroach, that takes over the body of an abusive, redneck farmer named Edgar. As Edgar says when the beast demands he put his weapon down, “You can have my gun when you pry it from my dead, cold fingers.” “Your proposal is acceptable,” replies the bug, who goes through most of the rest of the movie contorted within Edgar’s frame. Then there’s Linda Fiorentino, who plays Dr. Laurel Weaver, deputy medical examiner for the city morgue, who is unusually infatuated with her job. “I hate the living,” she casually remarks. She, too, is enlisted into serving with the good guys. And Rip Torn plays Zed, the agency’s dauntless leader, who has seen and faced down every peril known in the universe. Dealing with new agent Jay is another matter. Except for a brief bit toward the end of the film about Kay’s former love life, there are practically no character revelations among these cartoon-like folk. They are what you see, and that’s it.

I mentioned Tommy Lee Jones being funny in this picture, and, indeed, the more I watch it the funnier he is as the grumpy, no-nonsense, world-weary agent Kay (or K). It comes, I suspect, from his playing every gag with split-second timing and a perfectly deadpan, straight-faced delivery. When he and Jay go to investigate Edgar’s disappearance at the hands of the bug, Edgar’s wife, who thinks they’re from the FBI, asks Kay, “You here to make fun of me, too?” Without a moment’s hesitation, Kay replies, “No, ma’am. We at the FBI do not have a sense of humor we’re aware of.”

Humor aside, the film is a visual treasure house of special effects that, nevertheless, do their job without overpowering the rest of the movie. From creating flying saucers to alien-creature designs, from computer-generated monsters to the inside of MiB’s sleek headquarters, makeup artist Rick Baker, Industrial Light and Magic, and the rest of the f/x crew do an extraordinary job making high-tech wizardry serve the needs of the script. Danny Elfman’s musical score drives relentlessly forward, decidedly underlining the goings on. Director Barry Sonnenfeld juggles the humor, effects, and thrills like a magician who proves to have one more rabbit up his sleeve than we ever expected.

And should I mention that Steven Spielberg was executive producer on the film? The whole team deserves a round of applause for entertaining us so thoroughly and so convincingly.

Video:
None of which would mean as much if it weren’t presented in the best and latest technological manner. Here, Columbia TriStar do a more than respectable job. The widescreen dimensions measure 1:77:1, very close to the film’s release ratio of 1.85:1. Colors are smooth and radiant and fairly well delineated, with little bleed-through. It’s hard to tell, of course, if the DVD transfer is doing anything to veil the picture, or if the original print was slightly soft to begin with. I have seen sharper lines and edges than these, but it’s so minor I doubt most people would notice.

Audio:
The sound is also quite impressive, with one small reservation. I suspect in this case the DVD’s soundtrack is reproducing almost exactly what came with the film. It’s very wide ranging in frequency and dynamics, and therein lies the problem. It may be too dynamic for easy listening. Dynamic range refers to the difference in volume between the softest and loudest passages in a given medium. In this film if you set the volume control to an acceptable level for dialogue, you may find the special audio effects and music too loud. I thought things were going fine until Jay and Kay entered the MiB headquarters that masquerades as a tunnel-ventilation building. Inside, the gigantic exhaust fan produced so low and so loud a noise, it shook all the doors and windows in my house and prompted my wife to turn it down because it was hurting her ears. A three-decibel cut in overall volume mitigated the issue. This may be an even bigger concern if your subwoofer is set too high. An odd condition of the human ear prevents most people from perceiving deepest bass at the same level of intensity as midrange notes. Therefore, it is not uncommon for home theaters or stereo systems that are set up by ear to be incorrectly adjusted for too much bass output. What’s more, a normal listening room will reproduce bass frequencies at differing levels depending on location, with greater prominence in corners. For instance, in my setup I have the bass (60 Hz) fixed to the level of the midrange (1K Hz) at my main listening position, but it can vary as much as six or eight decibels depending on what other places around the room I’m measuring. Anyway, for this film you might need to fiddle with the gain control on your amplifier and/or subwoofer more than usual.

Extras:
Appropriate to a film as popular as this one, Columbia TriStar have provided the DVD with an excellent supplement of bonus features. The most unusual item is a visual commentary with Barry Sonnenfeld and Tommy Lee Jones. This is a step beyond the usual full-length audio commentary found on most discs (although a regular commentary is available as an alternative). In the visual commentary state, the director and star are sitting in silhouette in front of the movie while talking about it and drawing lines and highlights on the screen as they’re making their points. It’s much like a football announcer on TV diagramming the plays. However, in order to view the visual commentary, you have to set your DVD player to its 4×3 display mode, a nuisance to remember to change back if you normally use the 16×9 mode as I do. Anyway, as I said, an option allows you to choose an ordinary audio commentary, too. Next, there’s a twenty-three-minute documentary called “Metamorphosis of Men in Black,” which includes interviews with just about everybody associated with the making of the movie and which concentrates a great deal on the special effects used. Another clever touch is a series of character animation studies plus the tunnel scene using various angles to show how they were created. As the narration goes on, the user can change the angle via the remote control and see additional layers of computer graphics being applied to a character or scene. Nifty. Then, there are five extended and alternate scenes to watch, a lot of conceptual art, storyboards, and photo gallery pictures to view, storyboard comparisons, a six-and-a-half-minute original featurette to watch, and a music video with Will Smith and Mikey (Mikey is a space alien in the film). Finally, there are production notes, talent files, DVD-ROM & Web links, very attractive animated scene selections, and a few theatrical trailers. English and French are the spoken languages, and English, French, and Spanish are the subtitles. For Columbia TriStar this is a change; they usually provide subtitles in languages I’ve never even heard of.

Parting Thoughts:
“Men in Black” was so popular in 1997 it became the highest-grossing picture in Columbia’s history. What’s more, as of this writing, preparations are being made for a reuniting of its two stars in a sequel, “Men in Black 2.” I’m not entirely sure they haven’t already exhausted the format’s possibilities, yet I can’t help but welcome the prospect of another success. Still, Sonnenfeld knows all too well that the same formula doesn’t always work twice. He teamed Will Smith with Kevin Kline in the gadget-laden comedy “Wild, Wild West” in 1999 and got only tepid results. Fortunately, “MiB” is great entertainment any way you look at it.

Reply