Will Smith has certainly matured as an actor. Take his heart wrenching effort when Samantha, his beloved dog, contracts the virus in I am Legend (2007) or his sorrow and anger as he recounts how a robot saved his life in front of the twelve year old girl in I, Robot (2004). Who'd have though such emotion could have come from the Fresh Prince; a young hip singer song writer that graced our TV screens with his youthful attitude and comedic timing. His initiation into films came with some small independents before securing Bad Boys (1995), ID4 (1996) and MiB (1997), three massive summer blockbusters and marked Smith as a box office hit. In all of these films he plays pretty much the same character as he did in Fresh Prince, youthful, arrogant, cock sure but witty; in essence a very likeable character for all his self assuredness and charm. Although his range didn't develop until later, if he was pitted against another strong actor it really raised his game, as with tonight's feature Men in Black.
Smith plays James Edwards a New York cop whose whole worldly outlook is about to turn upside down when a suspect he chases turns out to be not of this world and the mysterious Men in Black, headed up by K (Tommy Lee Jones), come to clear up the mess. K, recognising a spirit in Edwards offers him a job within the team and after he accepts trains him in the art of intergalactic policing and alien cover-ups. Their first job is to prevent the destruction of the earth from an orbiting space ship whilst contending with a huge alien Bug hell bent on stealing a Galaxy the size of a marble.
The creative team behind Men in Black certainly hit all the right notes and pressed all the right buttons, from original concept, writing, casting, design and most crucially timing. Released in the summer of 1997 a year after the phenomenally successful (though phenomenally cheesy) Independence Day the cinema going public was once again ready to embrace a science fiction yarn that was as big on thrills as it was on comedy, setting the tone on enjoyment and adventure and not cheese. The film is based on the Men in Black, a supposed organisation that visits people to dissuade them from embellishing on their alien encounter stories. An entire cult has formed around these strange occurrences so much so that a comic book created by Lowell Cunningham became a reasonable success charting their adventures. The comic book lightens the rather sinister mood that the MiBs are associated with and seeing the potential, writer Ed Solomon and director Barry Sonnenfeld took the basic premise, lightened it even more and created a body of work that is fresh today as it was ten years ago.
The pairing of Jones with Smith was inspired, their on screen chemistry and constant banter makes for some of the best parts of the film; their styles contrasting to make a cohesive whole; Jones is gruff and uninterested, his back story is shown just enough to explain away his actions and his desire to be replaced, against Smith's fresh faced eagerness to join and make an impression; the youthful arrogance and wit standing him in good stead with his keen eye and deductive reasoning; as a working partnership they are phenomenal in both the film and as actors portraying their respective parts. Smith really rises to the occasion and as the film progresses takes the film more onto his shoulders mirroring the responsibility he takes when K decides to retire; all this and he was second credit!
Creature design and conception was handled by effects genius Rick Baker, whose input steered the film to the product we see today. The ever present hand of Spielberg was not as pronounced as one might have thought, this lack of on screen presence giving the film that Spielbergian gloss with none of the patter; it is all the better for it. Credit must also go to Solomon's script, which was witty, exciting and although completely outlandish is brought back to Earth with the human factor. This grounding in reality gives the audience something to hold onto; the MiB's are clearly the good guys, the Bug the bad guy, defined structure leaves no ambiguity, kids get a thrill from the monsters, adults latch onto the story. There is plenty to enjoy and whilst is does have a very juvenile Smith, the film itself is anything but.
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