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Sci-fi spoof is really out there Review: 'Men in Black,' a deadpan, aliens-among-us comedy, is something to phone home about.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In "Men in Black," immigrants are storming the border, and it ain't the Rio Grande.

This will come as no surprise to Roswell conspiracists, but aliens of the outer space variety are living on Earth. Most are in New York City. Many drive cabs.

As Tommy Lee Jones, one of the quasi-official Men in Black who monitor this "immigrant" activity, explains to a young recruit played by Will Smith, Earth is a popular refuge for those without a planet. "Ever see 'Casablanca'?" he asks. "Same thing, no Nazis."

"Men in Black" probably won't satisfy Roswellians. It's a loopy comedy that has the eccentric spirit and visual pyrotechnics of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and "Ghostbusters" but none of the darkness of "The X-Files." Based on a comic book series by Lowell Cunningham, the film is a spry, swiftly moving send-up that suggests that the supermarket tabloids are a whole lot closer to the truth than most of us think.

"Read The New York Times if you want," Jones, known only as K, tells Smith as he riffles through the Weekly World News, his most reliable tip-sheet on extraterrestrial sightings. "They get lucky sometimes."

As in "Roger Rabbit," the fun of "Men in Black" is its evocation of a fully realized, alternate reality. In this case, it's not 'toons who coexist with humans but aliens, rubbery, tentacled creatures who disguise themselves as human beings -- and occasionally animals -- in order to fit in.

But there's a difference. In "Roger Rabbit," everyone was aware of the 'toons. In "Men in Black," most are blissfully in the dark. Aside from keeping tabs on the mostly law-abiding aliens, the purpose of the super-secret Men in Black is to make sure the rest of the population remains ignorant of the presence of ETs in our midst. For our own peace of mind.

"There's always an Alien Battle Cruiser or a Korlian Death Ray or an intergalactic plague about to wipe out life on this planet," says K, "and the only thing that lets people get on with their hopeful little lives is that they don't know about it."

So, every so often, K grasps an instrument that looks like a hair curler and flashes its red light at civilians who have inadvertently stumbled upon the truth about extraterrestrials. Poof, their memories are erased. (On second thought, Roswell believers may love this movie.)

Barry Sonnenfeld, director of both Addams Family movies and "Get Shorty," establishes the premise in the wildly entertaining first 45 minutes and then glides along for the rest of the film on the strength of a poker-faced comic sensibility. The narrative by Ed Solomon ("The Garry Shandling Show") -- something about a new threat to the entire planet -- quickly becomes imponderable, but then "Men in Black" is more about style than story anyway.

The wizardry of puppets and computer animation gives the film a zany, carnival look. Jones and Smith provide its sly humor. They represent two versions of hip, Smith with the wisecracking bravado of his "Independence Day" pilot and Jones as a jaded G-man with a deadpan delivery and an unexpected poignancy that leads to a gratifying surprise ending.

The minor parts are all handled with flourish. In mustache and goatee, Rip Torn, as the dry, unruffled chief of MIB, regards a threat to the entire planet as just another day at the office. Linda Fiorentino ("The Last Seduction") is a medical examiner whose postmortems of aliens keep getting her flashed by K's hair curler. And as a slimy villain, Vincent D'Onofrio ("Full Metal Jacket") is a murderous alien bug in a sagging, jerky and ill-fitting human body that rots as the movie proceeds. Still, he manages to wander about New York City without anyone paying the least attention to him. That part of the movie doesn't seem fantastical at all.

"Men in Black's" greatest contribution, however, is its explanation for what we assume is peculiar human behavior. If it sometimes seems that people like Mike Tyson, Dennis Rodman and Newt Gingrich must be from another planet, "Men in Black" supplies the confirmation. They are.

'Men in Black'

Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Linda Fiorentino, Vincent D'Onofrio and Rip Torn

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld

Released by Columbia Pictures

Rated PG-13 (language, mild violence)

Sun score:

Pub Date: 7/02/97

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