`Men In Black': Sci-Fi Zaniness That Finally Crash-Lands

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XX 1/2 "Men in Black," with Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Linda Fiorentino, Vincent D'Onofrio, Tony Shalhoub, Rip Torn. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, from a script by Ed Solomon. 98 minutes. Factoria, Lewis & Clark, Meridian 16, Metro, Oak Tree, Totem Lake. "PG-13" - Parental guidance advised because of language and sci-fi violence. -----------------------------------------------------------------

This was supposed to be the hippest big movie of the summer: a $100 million subversion of science-fiction genre conventions that's played mostly for laughs. It hasn't quite worked out that way.

"Men in Black" is moderately amusing, well-constructed and mercifully short, but it fails to deliver on the zaniness of its first half. "Mars Attacks!" may have been a bit of a mess, but as a sendup of alien-invasion thrillers it had more outrageous moments and belly laughs.

Ed Solomon's script, based on Lowell Cunningham's cult comic-book series, is essentially an old cop/young cop story in which the two partners (Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith) are extraterrestrial-immigration officers: men in dark suits and glasses who are assigned to keep the alien population under control on Earth.

They're also issued memory-stun guns that make innocent human bystanders forget they've witnessed proof that UFOs are real. The neatest twist: only supermarket tabloids tell the truth about the aliens' activities.

It's assumed that the creatures landed years ago, that it would be detrimental if the human population knew about them, and that they just want to go about their business, earning a living while hiding out in human form, mostly in New York City. To keep a lid on the situation, Jones has more or less given up his private life, and he's showing Smith how to do the same.

Apocalyptic trouble starts when a UFO destroys a farmer's truck. Its owner (Vincent D'Onofrio) turns into a zombie who visits New York, kills an alien leader and escapes with a diamond that's more than a piece of jewelry. Eventually he visits a medical examiner (Linda Fiorentino) who's most comfortable in the morgue.

Director Barry Sonnenfeld, who did the witty "Get Shorty," and Solomon, who co-wrote the two "Bill and Ted" movies, use plenty of surreal, adolescent humor to set up this situation (the wild opening-credit sequence instantly establishes the tone). Jones' deadpan delivery is just right for his character's weary take on the underworld he knows, while Smith does what he can with a character who's learning the ropes along with the audience. D'Onofrio slyly transforms a thuggish human into an even more thuggish alien.

But somewhere around the midpoint they run out of energy and invention. Even the aliens, once they stop their shape-shifting ways and settle down to appear as themselves, begin to look familiar. If you saw Joe Dante's 1985 River Phoenix/Ethan Hawke movie, "Explorers," you won't be terribly surprised by their rubbery, globby appearance.

Special-effects fans will want to see the picture just for Industrial Light & Magic's startling morphing effects and the ingeniously casual integration of the aliens into the urban landscape. But eventually the comic-book origins of the material become painfully obvious. It's hard to sustain this joke even for 98 minutes.