Into the Melting Pot

The multiculti ensembles of Men in Black and Once Upon a Time in China and America mix it up

What is it about the black suit/black tie/white shirt get-up in movies? Specifically, why is it worn so often in stories about hipster guys and peripheral Others? In The Blues Brothers, the black-clad Jake and Elwood are a pair of white cats who live out the fantasy of being soul brothers on stage, their "mission from God" aided by the black musicians whose styles they cop (James Brown, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles). In Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino's white men in black talk shit about Madonna and Christie Love (and their underpaid waitress), while the only woman with any presence on screen is the one who gut-plugs Mr. Orange. Sporting this same costume, the titular heroes of Men in Black are in charge of policing New York City's "immigrant" population--except that one of the agents happens to be a black man (Will Smith), which rather complicates the formula. "You know what the difference is between you and me?" he asks his white partner (Tommy Lee Jones) provocatively. Hmmm. Answer: "I make this look good."

Let's give Men in Black props for putting forth a more inclusive vision of identity than the familiar "us and them"--not to mention being funny about it. Riffing on the double meaning of "aliens," this multiculti cop film-cum-FX epic features shape-shifting insects with gills for eyes; a bald giant from the "Arquillian Empire"; a pus-spewing, squid-like newborn; and a cat who holds the key to the universe. There's also a talking dog in a "I * NY" T-shirt who's an expert on intergalactic politics, and a paternal cockroach who inspires the following bit of reverse-racism from Smith's character: "You know y'all look alike." Playing a Manhattan street cop who joins Jones's Special Agent K in protecting the earth from various bad elements, Smith gets most of the race-related one-liners; he makes his entrance in the film by falling into a tourist bus and cracking wise about how "It just be rainin' black people in New York."

Based on an obscure comic-book series, Men in Black is the product of Bill and Ted writer Ed Solomon and The Addams Family director Barry Sonnenfeld. Thus, the melting-pot metaphors (and the humor) probably came from somewhere else, although in this movie season we're lucky to have them at all. The film's running gag is its deadpan nonchalance about intergalactic diversity--personified by Jones's stoic K, whose view of immigrants is that "most of 'em are just trying to make a living." Still, K shows his tough side by uncovering one apparent Mexican border-jumper as an illegal space alien and then zapping him into a puddle of slime. Needing to replace his retiring partner (an old white guy), K recruits Edwards (Smith) and renames him "J," admiring his disrespect for authority and considered use of firearms: During target practice, Edwards blasts a cardboard second-grader in the head, thinking it suspicious that a white girl would be traversing the ghetto with a quantum-physics textbook under her arm. How's that for affirmative action?

The true threats to humankind are interstellar cockroaches--one of which takes over the body of a farmer (Vincent D'Onofrio) who, having berated his wife (Siobhan Fallon) for never cooking a decent meal, is given his just desserts. Elsewhere, the film displays its PC agenda in subtler ways, although there's less to this blockbuster than meets the eye. And while Smith and Jones manage an otherworldly rapport (warning: sequel alert), some more humanoids could have enhanced the multiculti vibe. As it is, Men in Black emulates Jones's unflappable demeanor rather too closely, so careful is it to avoid making a false move, jeopardizing a potential franchise, or being remembered past opening weekend. Indeed, even its distinction of having the coolest reverse-tracking shot of the summer has already been eclipsed by the one in Contact, which is cooler still.

Per usual, this week's Hong Kong epic at the Riverview Theater (courtesy of Asian Media Access) provides a less cynical definition of the action blockbuster. Conveniently, it also delivers a story of American tribal conflict that's appreciably more compelling and coherent than Men in Black's. Set in Texas in the mid-1800s, Once Upon a Time in China and America (part six in the Once Upon series) puts the venerable folk hero Wong Fei Hong (Jet Li) in Western garb, recasting him as the traditional cowboy who rides into town in a covered wagon with his fiancee, Auntie Yee (Rosamund Kwan), to start a new life. The difference is that this guy's status as a stranger is further complicated by his color, which puts him at odds with both hatchet-wielding Indians and white racist townsfolk. Nevertheless, our hero and his clan mean to set up a Chinatown on the main strip by any means necessary.

Making friends with his former Indian foes, Wong is inducted into their tribe but develops amnesia--which gives China and America shades of The Searchers as well as the 1997 true story of Hong Kong identity in flux. As directed by Sammo Hung (series architect Tsui Hark serves here as a producer), the film doubly bears out its title: It's the distinctly Chinese tale of using history to usher the future; and an "American" genre film that, lacking a single special effect, could only be foreign or straight out of the past.

Men in Black is playing at area theaters; Once Upon a Time in China and America screens at the Riverview Theater on Friday at midnight, Saturday at 11 a.m., and Saturday, July 19 at midnight.

 
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