Buddy comedies are some of the most popular subsets of the action genre. The top-ten buddy actioners in history have grossed $1,770,894,352 domestically within the U.S. Hardly a small sum. Now, when asking cinephiles what their favorite buddy action movie is, be prepared for the usual suspects: Lethal Weapon, 48 Hours, Midnight Run, Bad Boys, The Heat, Hot Fuzz, etc. What you typically don't hear mentioned is Men in Black, a surprising fact considering Men in Black still stands in first place for box-office dollars among buddy action films, even after 20 years.
No, you haven't been neuralized, Men in Black turns 20 this year. The adaptation of a little-known comic book that launched Will Smith into superstardom, and two more sequels, is now old enough to be included as a player in the Cinemark Classics series. This bears reminding after two decades that the runaway success of the film wasn’t just due to a fresh premise or the fantastic creature design by Rick Baker. That a uniquely odd premise could eventually turn into a three-film franchise is a testament to both the weirdness of the 1990s and also to the rapport of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones.
Barry Sonnenfeld's film had the budget of a blockbuster, but Men in Black was a barely-read comic book series that had none of the built-in audience of Spider-man, Batman, or X-Men. It's a series of incidents covered up by Division 6 bureaucrats trying to keep Earthlings blissfully unaware of how many aliens live here. New York City serves as a galactic melting pot precisely because no one would notice any odd behavior there. Even the public interrogation of a mouthy pug barely draws any onlookers. Well aware that this comic book movie needed a light touch, Sonnenfeld built the film around Will Smith's abundance of charisma and Tommy Lee Jones' no-nonsense attitude.
Excluding the sci-f elements of the film, Men in Black is the standard template for a buddy cop movie. In this instance, both the grizzled veteran, Agent K (Jones), and brash rookie, Agent J (Smith), tropes were dialed up to 11. If one were to question just how grizzled Agent K is, his face says it all. Those lines etched in his forehead aren't the result of sun damage; they are due to a lifelong inability to sanction buffoonery. Agent K has clearly seen it all and cares not to bring any of it back up again. When K is asked why aliens are on Earth, he responds, "Did you ever see the movie Casablanca? Same thing, except no Nazis." The overpowering gruff of Jones' demeanor could stifle a lot of co-stars, but not Smith. He replies to every sardonic comment with a wisecrack of his own. Pairing Smith with Jones was a godsend and necessary for the success of the film.
It's obvious that Men in Black was powered by the wattage of Smith and Jones chemistry. The plot is serviceable, but certainly not the driving engine of the film. Take a fairly innocuous scene where K orders J to assist an alien couple with the delivery of their child. While Agent K and the husband are going over simple regulation questions, J is being slammed around by a giant tentacle. Afterward, Agent K queries "did any of that seem odd to you?" and J’s reaction is worth the price of admission alone. The scene doesn't add anything to the overall plot, but it does showcase the comic abilities of both actors. Despite the very serious looking black suits and Ray-bans, the inherent goofiness shines through underneath.
It wasn't immediately apparent that Men in Black would be one of the most popular films of the year, but when it turned into a box-office behemoth, it was clear that it made an impact on audiences. The film went on to gross nearly $600 million worldwide in 1997. To put that number in context, only Titanic did better financially. Not bad for an unknown property that leaned heavily on Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. Maybe Men in Black doesn't quite belong on the Mt. Rushmore of greatest action films yet, but it is energetic, funny, and never shy about sharing a knowing wink with those watching. For that, it belongs in the conversation of best buddy cop film of all time.