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Blast San Francisco Bureau

A lot of the marketing for "Men In Black" leads one to think the movie is "The X-Files" meets "Ghostbusters" -- a sci-fun film with hipster cool written all over it. Sure, it shares superficial similarities in plot and tone with the above, but director Barry Sonnenfeld's new film is more akin to the old "Dragnet" series, with Agents K (Tommy Lee Jones) and J (Will Smith) playing dicks who are chasing an alien assassin and forced to save the world. Kicking alien butt has never seemed more fun.

The film begins with K recruiting J to join an ultra-secretive federal agency whose purpose is to monitor extraterrestrial activity. The thing is, the general public doesn't know aliens have infiltrated the Earth's populace. Most are simply intergalactic refugees -- some living incognito as humans -- trying to make a living like every other Joe and Jane. When people have a close encounter with the aliens, that's when the Men in Black intervene, cleaning up the mess and wiping out memories witnesses have of the planetary visitors. The Men in Black is the INS for E.T.

On J's first case, the MIBs are tracking a giant alien bug disguised as an upstate New York farmer, played in human form by the talented character actor Vincent D'Onofrio. The bug is on a mission that leaves a trail of alien corpses and involves the pending destruction of two universes, one of them Earth's if the MIBs don't act fast.

Jones is superb as the stone-faced MIB vet who trains the rookie agent, playing K with just the right balance of straight seriousness and light comedy. Smith also turns in a crisp performance, even when he rips off Eddie Murphy's smart-ass cop schtick. They mix well together. The rest of the supporting cast is also fine, with Linda Fiorentino playing the most sultry on-screen coroner and Rip Torn as the stern Boss In Black, Agent Zed.

Sonnenfeld does a fine job of not letting the numerous special effects overwhelm either the pace or plot of the film. Scenes move along briskly as our Ray-Banned heroes follow clue after clue to catch the criminal, with much of the action punctuated by simple sight gags and funny dialogue. There is one hilarious scene where the MIBs zip past gridlock traffic in the Holland Tunnel in a suped-up car while K sings along to an Elvis 8-track. It's nice to see Jones loosen up.

All the fun stuff is there for the summer film fluff audience to gobble up: laser blasts, explosions, chases, big guns (no, HUGE guns), and aliens, lots of aliens (fat aliens, cute aliens, tiny aliens, slimy aliens, you name it). Adding to the playful mood of the film are Danny Elfman's soundtrack and Bo Welch's "Man from U.N.C.L.E"-ish production design.

"Men In Black" succeeds where "Batman and Robin," that other comic book-based film of the summer, fails: It embraces its colorfully contrived nature without over-doing it. "Men" is slick and fun, period. I can't wait to see Jones and Smith back in "Black."