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Mystery Men

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Mystery Men

Starring: Greg Kinnear, Ben Stiller
Director: Kinka Usher
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 122 Minutes
Release Date: August 1999
Genres: Comedy, Sci-Fi/Fantasy

*Also starring: William H. Macy, Paul Reubens, Hank Azaria, Janeane Garofalo, Kel Mitchell, Wes Studi, Tom Waits, Geoffrey Rush

Review by Greg King
2 stars out of 4

This high camp, low brow spoof of comic book super heroes is ultimately something of a disappointment. Based on the Dark Horse comic, Mystery Men affectionately sends up the conventions of more familiar super heroes, but it also taps the genre for some rich satire. The film follows the misadventures of a group of amateur super heroes who finally get their chance to prove themselves. Despite a stellar cast, high production values and some nifty one liners, Mystery Men sadly fails to reach any great heights.

The fictitious Champion City has always been protected by its resident super hero Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear, from As Good As It Gets, etc). But he has done such a good job of putting away super villains that he is doing himself out of a job and losing lucrative sponsorship deals as well. Captain Amazing hatches a plot whereby he arranges for his arch nemesis Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush) to be released on parole, in order to maintain his status. But Frankenstein has diabolical plans of his own. He quickly turns the tables on the super hero, taking him prisoner and setting up his scheme to dominate Champion City.

The only ones capable of thwarting Frankenstein's evil scheme are a tragic group of wannabe super heroes with dubious special powers. Blue collar workers disillusioned with their dead end day jobs and lack of respect from their peers and family, the three men prowl the city at night trying to fight crime. These aspiring super heroes are the Blue Raja (Hank Azaria), an effete master of cutlery who hurls forks - never knives - at the villains; Mr Furious (Ben Stiller) who works himself into a terrifying rage; and the Shoveler (William H Macy) who wields garden implements with dexterity and skill. But their incompetence and lack of ability sees them regarded as little more than a joke by both the police and the supercilious Captain Amazing.

The hapless heroes are no match for Frankenstein's army, and reluctantly realise that they need to recruit some more super heroes. A hasty search turns up the Spleen (Paul Reubens, aka Pee Wee Herman), whose explosive farts can vanquish villains from ten paces; the Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell, from Good Burger, etc), whose ability to turn invisible works best when no-one is watching; and the Bowler (Janeane Garofalo), who carries her murdered father's skull around in a glass bowling ball.

The task of whipping this motley crew into shape falls to the legendary super hero the Sphinx (Wes Studi, from Geronimo, etc). However, his habit of uttering clichéd aphorisms like "If you doubt your powers then you give power to your doubts" both confuse and frustrate our heroes. Armed with some high tech non-lethal weaponry provided by an eccentric armourer (Tom Waits), these amateur super heroes are ready to take the fight to Frankenstein, for one final time.

From its distinctive visual style it's obvious that first time director Kinka Usher hails from a background in commercials. The gothic production design and the striking look is reminiscent of the gloomy look and dark tone that Tim Burton gave to his version of Batman. But ultimately the film is all style, with very little substance.

Usher may be good with visuals and the overall look of the film, but he's less assured with handling actors. Most of the performances here lack subtlety. However, the always reliable Macy gives his character a touch of vulnerability and grounds him in a reality that is sadly missing from the rest of the characters. Garofalo is at her tart and acerbic best, while Rush's camp and over the top villain perfectly captures the comic sensibility of the film. There are some great moments in this film, but there are also a number of moments that fall horribly flat.

Despite some well meaning ideas about the nature of friendship and the inevitability of good triumphing over evil, Mystery Men is a bit of a mixed bag that may struggle to please audiences. The biggest mystery of all is how a film with so much potential fell so horribly short of the mark.

Copyright © 2000 Greg King

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