The Original 'Men in Black' Still Holds up Extremely Well

Columbia Pictures/Getty Images
Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

After attending a screening of this summer's snooze fest of the latest Men in Black sequel, Men in Black: International, I had one desire: to go home and rewatch the original Men in Black. International is only offensive in so far in that it is very boring, a movie ostensibly set in the world that Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones occupied in 1997, but with none of the same goofy spirit. From its opening moment it feels dead inside, despite noble efforts from stars Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson.

So, what was missing? Why is Barry Sonnenfeld's introduction to this mythology a film I hold so dear? Why does it feel so delightfully quaint in this day and age? Here's the thing: The first Men in Black holds up, mainly because it tries to do so little. It's basically an episode of Law & Order with aliens. There's a lot of goo and a lot of great performances, among them Vincent D'Onofrio as the villainous Bug, whose delivery of the line "sugar water" recently inspired a (fantastic) oral history over at Vulture (full transparency, I was initially planning on devoting this entire story to the brilliance of D'Onofrio until that piece came along, and did it way better). There's something so delightfully tactile -- or maybe I should say visceral because of all the splattering alien guts -- about the first Men in Black that makes it feel alive in a way that a lot of modern blockbusters, including its latest follow-up, do not.

Because, all things considered, it's been a pretty grim summer at the movies, thanks to labored installments in massive franchises like Godzilla: King of the Monsters and Dark Phoenix. Not to make this all "those were the days..." -- because there has always been a lot of crap -- but when I did put on Men in Black (which is rentable on Amazon Prime, YouTube, iTunes, and Google Play), it was like a grimy breath of fresh air. Let's revisit just why it holds up so well.

The story is small

As I mentioned before, Sonnefeld's movie really feels like a nearly two-hour long episode of Law & Order without any of the courtroom stuff -- just sub in Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith for Jerry Orbach and Jesse L. Martin. This, by the way, is a good thing. Smith's Jay and Jones' Kay spend most of the movie just walking around New York, visiting their sources. David Sims once argued in The Atlantic that Men in Black was the "best New York movie of the '90s," and it uses the city Dick Wolf's classic series does, but with fewer sex crimes and more funny aliens. Even when it gets to the big showdown between Jay, Kay, and the Bug, the action remains manageably contained. The climax, if you'll recall, involves Smith squishing a bunch of roaches with his foot to enrage his opponent. There are basically no explosions; the story just doesn't need it.

Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

"A person is smart, people are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it."

Now, I'm not going to make the case that Men in Black is some sort of woke masterpiece, but it does have moments of distinct profundity. The opening sequence finds Kay and his former partner butting heads with some INS agents intent on harassing a group of undocumented people, blithely unaware to the fact that there's a visitor from outer space in their midst. It is bizarrely, uncomfortably relevant, especially when Kay orders the truck of migrants to keep going and cracks sarcastically to the supposed law enforcement officers: "Keep on protecting us from the dangerous aliens."

MiB is mostly played for humor, and you can debate Jay and Kay's treatment of the aliens they both monitor and protect. (Sure, shaking someone from whom you're trying to get information isn't, uh, a great interrogation tactic, even when said person is a pug.) But generally, the movie's approach to the very idea of extraterrestrials is generous in spirit. That's evident in an early moment when Jay asks why humans are kept in the dark about the actual aliens living among them. Kay responds: "A person is smart, people are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it." In a utopian society, the Men in Black wouldn't need to exist in secret, but humans are just too unpredictable and fucked up for that to happen. 

Will freakin' Smith

All credit to Tommy Lee Jones, an incredible actor whose monotone delivery provides Smith the canvas on which to play, but the star power that basically wafted off of the Fresh Prince in 1997 was so strong it knocks you out. He's a whirlwind of charisma, who is charmingly loose in his expressiveness with every facial reaction a screencappable moment. He makes even the corny end credits rap charming as hell.

click to play video

The supporting cast -- the human, the alien, and the human-alien hybrid

The pleasure of watching Law & Order is the legions of "hey, it's that guy" actors that pop up as suspects, doormen, cab drivers, and other city denizens. The same is true in Men in Black. Frank the Pug and the worm guys are iconic, of course, but it's the human performers that make the most impact. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel's Tony Shalhoub as Jeebs, the squirrely pawn shop owner with impressive abilities for regeneration; Siobhan Fallon Hogan as the farmer's wife who for the life of her cannot say "Edgar"; legendary stage actor Mike Nussbaum as the human host of Arquilian Gentle Rosenberg; Linda Fiorentino as the deadpan (pun intended) mortician. The list just goes on. With International, the performances seem to have a CGI sheen. Everyone feels like they are acting opposite a tennis ball; the aliens seem ripped from the Star Wars prequels. It's lifeless. Men in Black's previous sequels aren't entirely successful, but when they are, they're sustained by really good acting. Case in point: Michael Stuhlbarg's charming weirdo in the third entry. These character actors are the original's best legacy. Which brings us to...

click to play video

Vincent D'Onofrio saying "sugar water"

I'm exhausted by bad guys who are devoid of personality or who are nebulously scheming. Give me something as beautifully strange as D'Onofrio's Bug, who just wants to steal a galaxy and provide for his endlessly large roach family. He crash lands on a farm and steals a man's skin and then goes hobbling about New York, his face and body contorted in inexplicable ways. According to Vulture's oral history, D'Onofrio locked his knees and ankles with basketball braces to master the stilted gait. He imitated George C. Scott and John Huston for the voice. One assumes if the same script were produced today, the Bug would largely be created digitally. It's hard to imagine a recent character that was borne out of so many strange creative choices. Watching Men in Black now, you remember how special, scary, and disgusting freaky bug man strode across a distinctly strange landscape and that pang of nostalgia is inevitable. 

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.