July 14, 1997 12:00 PM

Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Linda Fiorentino, Vincent D’Onofrio

Too many big-studio movies this summer begin with guns blazing and vehicles crashing before the opening credits have even rolled. Men in Black begins with a splat: a firefly wings its way from outer space to Earth only to encounter, with fatal results, a windshield. It’s a witty and inventive opening, and indicative of what’s to come in this delightfully droll, off-beat sci-fi comedy. Men in Black, which runs only 98 minutes, is a small, deliciously quirky film masquerading as a summer blockbuster—thanks to the casting of high-profile stars Jones and Smith, some nifty special effects and the stylish direction of Barry Sonnenfeld (Get Shorty).

Early on, Jones recruits Smith, a New York City cop, into the Men In Black, a top secret federal agency whose moniker is derived from the boxy, generic black suits its agents wear. Just as the FBI tracks the activities of mobsters, so MIB keeps tabs on extraterrestrials who have taken up residence here on earth. “There are about 15,000 aliens on the planet, mostly in Manhattan,” Jones explains to Smith. “Most are just trying to make a living.” The movie’s slight plot turns on Jones and Smith’s pursuit of a particularly nasty alien (D’Onofrio), a creature who drinks huge quantities of sugar water and is intent on starting an intergalactic war.

The plot, trifling as it is, doesn’t much matter. What makes the movie such a hoot are the clever gags (Jones regularly checks the supermarket tabloids for tips on aliens, and a huge tracking board at MIB headquarters reveals Newt Gingrich, Sly Stallone and fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi to be visitors from other planets), imaginative special effects (including sluglike, pygmy aliens who sit around all day kibitzing, slurping Java and smoking Marlboros) and the snappy byplay between the well-matched Jones and Smith. And Fiorentino is a tart delight as a coroner quick t up on the fact that some of the bodies she’s cutting up aren’t exactly human. (PG-13)

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