Updated date:

Remembering "Men in Black" (1997)


Ash has a bachelor's in English Lit. She loves analyzing fiction and obsessing over books, film, and television.

A promotional poster.

A promotional poster.

Men in Black is a 1997 science fiction action comedy starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as the titular Men in Black, a secret agency that polices alien activity on Earth.

I've always been a big science fiction nerd, so when this movie came out, 11-year-old me was pretty excited. Twenty-three years later, and I'm still a fan of this franchise. I recently looked at the first Men in Black again for the first time in years, and it's still as great as I remember.

The Opening Scene

Mikey, the "Mexican" alien.

Mikey, the "Mexican" alien.

At the risk of sounding like a total geek, the first ten minutes of Men in Black were iconic in how memorable they were. We are treated to a scene where Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) is on the hunt to uncover an illegal alien who is . . . posing as an illegal alien.

K insults the imposter in Spanish before unmasking him to reveal that he's not an immigrant but an actual alien. Sadly, K's partner is too slow to stop Mikey from attacking a witless bystander, and so K is forced to kill him. Realizing he's too old to go on, K's partner sits down and implies that he's ready to retire. K takes out his neuralyzer and wipes his memory . . .

The scene perfectly demonstrates a greatly written opening scene in that it sets up the motivations of the main character and also introduces us to the lore and the world in an entertaining way.

Because we learn in the scene that K needs a new partner, which is what leads him to Agent J. We also learn who and what the Men in Black are. And lastly, we learn about the neuralyzer.

Combined with Danny Elfman's wonderful score, the scene is pretty . . . perfect.

Agent K and Agent J

"Roaches check in. . . .They don't check out."

"Roaches check in. . . .They don't check out."

Because of the pairing between Agent K and Agent J (Will Smith), one might say that Men in Black was a 90s buddy cop movie but with aliens. Actually, that's precisely what it was.

During the time the film came out, buddy cop films were pretty popular. We had Rush Hour, Bad Boys, Blue Streak, Wild Wild West, Lethal Weapon, (Does Die Hard count?), and two of those Will Smith starred in.

Buddy cop films have since taken a dip in popularity, and these days, it's mostly apocalypse/zombie and/or superhero/transformer stuff that anybody cares for (franchises Will Smith also dipped his toes in). So to me, Men in Black was the last good buddy cop franchise of an era. The dynamic between Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones certainly made it seem that way.

Agent J is recruited.

Agent J is recruited.

I'm not sure how many people realize this, but Agent J's role actually wasn't written for Will Smith. A lot of big stars will actually have roles written for them, but back in the 90's, Will Smith was just coming into his stardom. Men in Black is one of the films that made him a star.

Unsurprisingly, the role was written for a white guy. Will Smith took it and made it his own. So keep that in mind during the chase scene where he drops on the double decker bus (seemingly from the sky) and says to the startled tourists, "It just be raining black people in New York!"

Agent J mocks "Captain Boy America."

Agent J mocks "Captain Boy America."

My trivia about Will Smith aside, I always liked the character of Agent J. To be honest, this was a role where Will Smith was just playing himself: smart ass, big ego, kind of arrogant but good at heart. But it worked because it made the test scenes hilarious.

The first test is to see who will be bold enough to risk looking awkward by pulling the table to themselves to write on. That was the real test. Who would be willing to leave their comfort zone, look silly, ignore judgement in order to get the job done?

Of course, it was Agent J. But if you pay close attention, it's fairly obvious that the other candidates aren't there to actually be recruited. They're there so that James can be observed without the added pressure of being the only person there.

The other candidates are also being used to gage Agent J's personality. The way he interacts with them (mocking them) is observed by Agent K, who seems to approve. Unlike the other stiff shirts in the room, James actually seems like he would be fun to have around.

"Why did little Tiffany deserve to die?"

"Why did little Tiffany deserve to die?"

The second test was about whether or not James could recognize sentience in alien beings, if he had a human bias, and if he was able to think critically about his surroundings.

He passed the test perfectly in that he didn't see aliens as evil monsters to be gunned down blindly. Instead of assuming the worse about them because they are aliens, he takes a second to consider alternatives. In other words . . . He sees aliens as people.

Little Tiffany "deserving to die" was also logical. An alien who is up to no good would likely take on the appearance of someone innocent (a small girl) while failing to hide just how guilty of something they actually are (the advanced science books).

I liked the way the tests were done. The fact that they took proper time to screen applicants showed that the Men in Black were concerned with not only protecting Earth but also treating alien visitors fairly.

*Insert a snarky remark about the police here.*

Agent K interrogates James.

Agent K interrogates James.

So Will Smith was pretty much perfect for this movie, but so was Tommy Lee Jones.

With the right director, Tommy Lee Jones is a brilliant actor. In this film, he was directed to be the stoic straight man and it worked perfectly alongside Will Smith's smart-ass comments. The scene where James (yet to become Agent J) and Agent K meet for the first time in the film is great for this reason.

Agent K is worried that a hostile alien has shown up on Earth. He's so worried that he's frowning and biting his lip. When James tells him that the alien he chased mentioned the end of the world happening, Agent K calmly asks, "Did he say when?"

The question is asked so seriously and so calmly, it makes both the audience and Will Smith sit still. The entire scene gives the vibe that -- despite his obvious anxiety -- Agent K is a badass who is going to save the planet in five minutes if he has to. He just needs a deadline.

The fact that he's so calm speaks to his experience: he's saved the world a thousand times before. Meanwhile, for the duration of the film, Agent J is loud and panicking and behaving rashly and hastily.

There's one hilarious scene towards the end where the Bug escapes after a confrontation. Agent J leaps over a banister and runs down the street, chasing the taxi. . . while Agent K calmly walks down the sidewalk to his car, circles back, and picks J up.

The entire dynamic of hot-headed inexperienced youth and calm, collected veteran was well-played.

"Edgar" aka the Bug

"Give me sugar . . . In water."

"Give me sugar . . . In water."

As far as fiction goes, the story is only as good as the villain. If the villain is crap, then I guarantee the story will be crap. A good villain poses an actual threat, keeps the heroes on their toes, has memorable lines, and may or may not wear dead people's faces. The Bug did all of that.

The farmer Edgar who later becomes a skin suit is such a crappy guy that you almost want to applaud the alien for crashing into his precious truck, wearing his skin, and freeing his poor abused wife (Siobhan Fallon Hogan).

The Bug/Edgar was played by Vincent D'Onofrio, who did a pretty memorable job of pretending to shuffle along inside a skin suit that was stiffening and decaying. And that voice . . . LOL.

The Bug landed on Earth to steal the "galaxy" from the Arquillians and destroy them. Why? Who cares? He's a jerk!

I loved it at the end of the film when Agent J figured out that stopping the Bug from leaving Earth meant goading him about how disgusting bugs are.

Crunch. "Was that your aunty?"

Then Agent K bursts out of the bug and shoots him. The two agents sit there in relief as the Bug slowly rises behind them . . . and is blown away by the mortician.

I always loved it that Dr. Weaver (Linda Fiorentino) wound up being the one to kill the Bug. Instead of being a damsel in distress who was forgotten in the background, she wound up saving the friggin' galaxy. And she became J's partner!

As a little girl watching this, I was pretty happy that a woman got be a "Man in Black." But sadly, Agent L didn't return for the rest of the franchise because Fiorentino was (rumored as) too difficult to work with (though sometimes that's code for "Someone tried to sleep with her and she said no").

Agent L waits for J to get a hotdog.

Agent L waits for J to get a hotdog.

Interestingly enough, this had a trickle down effect on the trilogy, causing the story to focus more on the dynamic between Agent K and Agent J and ultimately keeping it a bro film.

Now, I love the buddy cop dynamic between J and K (obviously since I gushed about it for fifty paragraphs above) but any movie that has more women kicking ass (rather than serving passive, plot device roles) is a movie I can get down with.

I guess the female equivalent to the buddy bro cop franchise would be Charlie's Angels or something.

So yeah. Men in Black is and was a great film. Sadly, they just don't make films like this anymore.

Related Articles