In Men in Black, Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith play buttoned-down federal agents who make the world safe for extraterrestrial immigration. Neat trick, but what Barry Sonnenfeld’s movie pulled off this past summer was, in its own way, just as spectacular: It made the pop mass marketplace safe for irony. More subversive than Independence Day, subtler than smug meta-thrillers like Hudson Hawk and Last Action Hero, lighter on its feet (not to mention funnier) than Mars Attacks!, Men in Black delivered the necessary hit-movie whammo while gently parodying same. And audiences got it, glory be — they saw the scene where Jones, as Agent K, interrogates a suspect while in the background Smith, as Agent J, is tossed about with cartoon abandon by an alien squid, and they were able to share the goof and keep the faith.
It must be stressed that Hollywood does not do deadpan self-satire well. On the rare occasions it does, moviegoers simply go to other movies. So Men in Black’s gargantuan, Lost World-stomping box office is enough to make this critic wish for a neuralizer of his own, so that he could wipe out your memories of the film and let you experience it for the first time, on tape and on a double bill with the only other movie I can think of that nails the same anarchic double vision.
I speak, of course, of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension.
When it was released in 1984, W.D. Richter’s (Late for Dinner) incomparably droll comedy was misunderstood on every level: diluted by editors, wrongly promoted as a straight sci-fi flick, trashed by many critics, and scorned by the public. Only a scruffy band of cultists have kept the film alive over the years, but given the higher ’90s profile of Buckaroo costars Jeff Goldblum, Ellen Barkin, and John Lithgow (previewing his 3rd Rock From the Sun demented-alien shtick 12 years ahead of schedule), it may at last be worthy of a mainstream audience. Or vice versa.
Kicking off with an expository title crawl that apes Star Wars and is, if anything, even more incomprehensible, Buckaroo plays like chapter 27 of a Saturday-matinee serial, and too bad for you if you missed the first 26. All you need to know is that Buckaroo (Peter Weller, exuding Zen coolth) is a world-famous physicist/neurosurgeon/rock star who leads his Hong Kong Cavaliers to overthrow the Red Lectroids from Planet 10 while at the same time wooing his ex-wife’s long-lost identical twin (Barkin). That’s skipping the Rasta aliens, a mysterious watermelon, and the bit where we find out Orson Welles’ 1938 ”The War of the Worlds” broadcast actually wasn’t a hoax.
Buckaroo would collapse like — well, like Hudson Hawk — if the actors, Earl Mac Rauch’s script, and Richter’s direction didn’t serve it all straight up. Eventually, the movie bogs down in a protracted chase sequence, but even as it sputters, Buckaroo maintains the ice blue wryness of its hero’s koan: ”No matter where you go, there you are.”
Interestingly, both Banzai and Men in Black pit the good guys against well-meaning extraterrestrials who plan to nuke Earth unless their own villains are brought to justice. Men in Black simply clears a vast space around that concept where special effects and the stars’ quizzical aplomb can work off each other. The result isn’t exactly a comedy — there are few laugh-out-loud punchlines — and it’s not quite an action thriller. What it does is stand in the middle and eye both genres with a benign yet dangerous grin.
As they rocket around the New York area, grilling alien pawnshop owners (Tony Shalhoub), flirting with lady coroners (Linda Fiorentino), and eventually grappling with a monstrous bug inhabiting the skin of an upstate farmer (a game and gamey Vincent D’Onofrio), our heroes both take part in the action and, via an insouciance that can only be called postmodern, comment on how silly it all is. The key’s in the casting: We’re responding not just to Agents K and J but to Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith — to each actor’s ability to puncture Event Movie BS without overt winking. That audiences took this in stride indicates that we’ve become refreshingly jaded about the things Hollywood feeds us — or, perhaps, that our pop pleasures have turned dauntingly baroque. Either way, where Buckaroo Banzai was ahead of its time, Men in Black looks to be perfectly, proudly of it. Both films: B+