Every decade has its definitive New York movies, films where (true to the cliché) the city is as much a character as anything else and its atmosphere, be it gritty and crime-riddled (Taxi Driver, The French Connection) or swooningly romantic (Manhattan) or bristling with tension (25th Hour). Everyone thinks of Al Pacino, Woody Allen and Spike Lee, but in my mind, the most definitive “New York Movie” of the ‘90s is a blockbuster starring a Philadelphian and a Texan that came out on Independence Day weekend in 1997: Men in Black.
Much like Memorial Day, just because a movie’s coming out on July 4th weekend doesn’t mean it’ll be a sure-fire hit. Studios use the holiday as a dumping ground as much as they use it as a tentpole. But the year after Independence Day’s massive success, we got what remains one of the cleverest blockbusters of the opening weekend-centric era that it helped establish.
Barry Sonnenfeld (a born-and-raised New Yorker) had been on a roll of smart-alecky, great-looking studio films in The Addams Family, its sequel, and Get Shorty, and made the brilliant suggestion of re-writing the script for his next project by setting it in New York. The source material (a limited-run, barely-read comic book series) lacked the setting and flavor the script gave the movie by setting it in New York. Sonnenfeld supposedly had the brilliant idea of moving the action there as part of a winking joke that New Yorkers would barely notice weird alien life among them.
It’s not the only thing that makes Men in Black work—it’s an impeccably designed film with superlative chemistry between its two leads, one of the funniest and strangest villain performances I’ve ever seen in a blockbuster (Vincent D’Onofrio, doing the most incredible physical comedy) and a “queen of the undead” mortician love interest played with appreciably weird, aloof energy by Linda Fiorentino (whose career was sadly cut short by her poor on-set reputation).
But the setting is crucial. Since Men in Black has its roots in the ‘60s alien visitor sci-fi conspiracy theories, the film’s depiction of New York has a similarly bygone feel to it. In their first meeting, Agent K takes J to the Empire Diner; later, they visit a jewelry shop on MacDougal Street in the Village and a pawn shop on Orchard and Broome run by Tony Shaloub’s squirrely Jeebs. An alien assassination takes place at a pierogi joint, and the MiB headquarters is, of course, the Battery Tunnel’s ventilation building. The furthest we get from the city is New Jersey (for the birth of the squid baby) and our finale is at Flushing Meadows Park involving the centerpiece of the World’s Fair.
The joke of the location is simple—MiB keeps the aliens on the island of Manhattan to keep an eye on them, but also because they’ll blend in better. “Cab drivers,” J says knowingly. “No, not as many as you’d think!” K replies. But even better, most aliens are revealed to be not monsters at all, but basically just ordinary working folk trying to keep their heads down.
This is what makes Men in Black such a paean to New York’s status as a melting pot. Sure, its residents can be a little unusual or different, and there’s that low thrum of danger to living there (you never know when a Vincent D’Onofrio type is going to show up, or when Will Smith is gonna have to chase someone through the Guggenheim Museum). But that’s what makes it the most exciting and diverse city in the world. Its aliens just represent the multitude of places New York draws its immigrant population from; K himself says the Men in Black are just an interstellar Ellis Island to move everyone through. While the sequels kept the New York setting, they never recaptured the street-level magic of the first film. J and K’s whole detective strategy is walking around storefronts downtown and then driving their car through the Queens Midtown Tunnel to squish the invading bug. All in a day’s work.