Most weeks this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Men in Black: International is the latest attempt to exhume an old franchise whose days of being beloved by audiences are long past. Let's journey back 22 years to the moment in history where this material worked best.

The late-1990s popcorn movie is such a particular beast. You have, on the one hand, a new era of VFX technology, which resulted in more spectacle-for-spectacle's sake filmmaking than at any point since the 1960s; you have, on the other hand, genres and writing styles that had been locked in during the 1980s. There's little denying that the blockbuster cinema of ten years later is smoother and better, but I have to think that movies made at this point are generally more interesting than their descendants; they have a lumpy confusion about them that feels more personable than the machine-tooled popcorn cinema of the late 2000s or 2010s. Add in the remarkable shift that was just about to happen, by which movie stars were about to start losing the financial prominence they'd held in the American film industry since the earliest days that it made sense to use the word "industry" to talk about it, and we have the very singular arrangement of forces and tastes that made 1997's Men in Black possible.

It's odd: other than a joke about notoriously colorful NBA player Dennis Rodman, there's not a single thing about the movie that feels particularly time-stamped, but I truthfully do not know if the film could have come out in any other summer. Certainly not if it wanted to hit the Zeitgeist the way it did (it was the year's second highest-grossing film at the domestic box office and third at the worldwide box office, mostly because it had the bad luck to open the same year that Titanic made an amount of money that had previously been genuinely impossible to contemplate). The big thing is that it absolutely had to be the next film Will Smith made after Independence Day, in the moment when it was crystal clear that he was about to become the next big movie star, and needed something to solidify it. A lighthearted comic movie in the same generic playground as ID4 was exactly the way to do it, and sure enough, Men in Black locked-in a perception of Smith as an A-lister that maybe wasn't even justified: the next several years of his career would be made up of underperformers and bombs that came nowhere close to A-lister money, and it wasn't until the five-years-later Men in Black II that he'd be in a flat-out hit, and not until 2007's I Am Legend that he'd be in something operating at basically the same level. And yet, nowhere in that ten years can I recall anyone suggesting even in passing that the luster was off of Smith's name. That kind of rumbling didn't happen until After Earth in 2013. So, back to my point we go: Men in Black locked him in as a movie star. And maybe I'm wrong all over, but I just don't think it would have done it even in 1998. Post-ID4, people wanted Will Smith in a movie about aliens, and they got it.

I also think that the film came out exactly at the right point to benefit from the extraordinarily weird thing that happened where leathery character actor Tommy Lee Jones became some kind of household name following in the wake of 1993's The Fugitive (Jones, in fact, gets first billing over Smith, a fact that struck me as peculiar in 1997 and seems like a hallucination here in 2019). The window of time in which a movie with Jones and Smith in the leads would, in no small part on the basis of that fact, make a quarter of a billion dollars in the United States and Canada was an extremely narrow window indeed. That it overlaps with the window of time in which you could put together a movie that was both a showcase for some extremely complicated effects work and also as an ambling character-driven hang-out buddy comedy, and have this seem like such a normal thing to do that nobody would think to comment on it, is pure serendipity.

Serendipity, I say, because Men in Black is, in addition to being uniquely and necessarily a creature of the second half of the 1990s, quite possibly the best popcorn movie of that half-decade. That's not solely because of its casting, though that helps considerably. Jones and Smith are not a self-evident choice for an odd couple. I mean, clearly they are an odd couple, but that wouldn't necessarily be a thing you'd think to capitalise on. As of 1997, the former had basically no comedy experience, for starters. Regardless, the pairing worked out tremendously well: the two actors have just about as much pitch-perfect chemistry as any pair on the "he's a loose cannon rookie with a loud mouth and a problem with authority; he's an old vet with a no-nonsense attitude; they'll have to work together to save the day" model ever has. This is due to a lot of things, maybe; certainly, Ed Solomon's script, adapting a well-regarded but obscure comic book miniseries by Lowell Cunningham, gives the two main characters, Agent K (Jones) and Agent J (Smith) of the extra-governmental organisation responsible for regulating extra-terrestrial activity on the planet Earth, plenty of fine one-liners to keep their interactions loose and punchy. It helps a lot that Solomon isn't simply setting up K as a run-of-the-mill straight man to Smith's quick-thinking con-man bluster, but that K is himself just a prone to wit and snark; he's just much drier and more deadpan about it (it occurs to me, and not for the first time, that for all the importance to the film in Smith's development of a movie star, Jones is the more impressive of the co-leads, playing cartoon absurdity with a rock-solid straight face).

That Men in Black, two decades and change later, holds up so astonishingly well - better, by a lot, than I would have assumed when it was new, and I was already a fan when it was new - is thanks mostly to these characters and their interactions: to Jones and Smith, operating in such wildly different comic registers; to Solomon, for writing them as anchors in a sprawling fantasy setting; to director Barry Sonnenfeld, for keeping things flat and straightforward, moving in direct lockstep with the characters and not ever branching out to gawk and be dazzled by the enormous production design and high-cost visual effects if that means breaking those characters' pitch-perfect comic energy (this is almost exactly the same strategy he used in The Addams Family and Addams Family Values earlier in the decade, to equally strong effect). Watching K and J interact, with J sprawling about as K regards him with deadpan impatience, would be equally as enjoyable no matter what they were up to, I rather suspect.

That being said, there is a plot here - I haven't gone into it, since it doesn't really matter, but basically there's an alien of a hostile species derisively called "Bugs" that has killed a human named Edgar (Vincent D'Onofrio) and is now wearing his skin like a rather bleak, rather decaying suit. D'Onofrio is the other strong foundation upon which the film resides; he's found a sludgy, spittle-flecked way of talking that somehow sounds like what happens if you were to try manipulating a human tongue and vocal cords from the inside while they were sagging around you. And he handles the impressive make-up and occasional CGI work to make the Edgar skin flop around without ever letting those effects become the performance. It's impeccable work at bringing what's ultimately a gross one-note joke to rich life. Anyway, K and J have to stop the bug from doing whatever horrible mischief it's up to, with the help of city morgue doctor Laurel (Linda Fiorentino, whose outstanding deadpan would stand out more in a film that didn't have Jones's tremendous performance), while back at Men in Black headquarters, chief Zed (Rip Torn) is dealing with the headache of an alien warship ready to blow the Earth out of the sky as a direct result of the bug's actions. The stakes are all the way up, but Men in Black never leans into them; it's all about the low-key moments, using its sci-fi elements (up to and including a menagerie of aliens that would do the Star Wars cantina scene proud) as a way of shaping the jokes around the two agents, but never forgetting that the star of the show is a buddy cop dynamic much, much older and more elegant than effects-driven blockbuster cinema.

It's not that Men in Black is bad as a sci-fi adventure; indeed, it is a hugely charming exercise in world building and letting make-up whiz Rick Baker show off (and win a much-deserved Oscar). It's just that it's a better hang-out comedy. And it knows this, is the thing: it doesn't try to scream about stakes, it doesn't present any huge setpieces (the action climax is played 100% for laughs, while also showcasing the only CGI that hasn't aged terribly well), and it doesn't puff up its blessed 97-minute running time to accomodate a sense of scale. It's basically just about two beleaguered officials trying to do a job, and keeping themselves amused along the way. For all the budget and summer tentpole dressing, it's a deliberately simple, small movie: the goal is not to impress us or be flashy, but to do a very basic thing and do it very well. This was just as much of a breath of fresh air in 1997 as it would have been in any subsequent summer: movies that want to batter us into submission are common as dirt, but films that really and truly only want us to have an easy good time, and have the filmmaking and acting chops to make good on that desire, are just about as rare as it gets. Men in Black looks busy, and it has a full world, but it's actually quite a small little tossed-off lark at heart, and that's exactly why it remains so hugely charming when so many more robust popcorn movies have crapped themselves out through the years. It's got a slack vibe that also could only have been so perfectly realised, in this form, in a very particular period of time, and somehow that works to make it feel rather engagingly timeless.