Friday August 6, 1999
It's their names that give them away:
Mr. Furious, "a ticking time bomb of fury" who has trouble getting a date.
The Blue Rajah, "the master of cutlery," who lives at home with his erratic mother.
The Shoveler, implement at the ready, decked out in his son's Little League chest protector and in-line skating kneepads.
These are real superheroes? Fighters against the blight of crime and corruption like the celebrated Captain Amazing? It's got to be some kind of joke, right? Well, yes and no.
For while Furious (Ben Stiller), Rajah (Hank Azaria) and the Shoveler (William H. Macy) are serious about their quest to be crusaders against evil in Champion City, "Mystery Men" is a tongue-in-cheek hipster celebration of the humor inherent in their determination.
Inspired by a Dark Horse comic created by Bob Burden, this high-style parody of the superhero ethos (written by Neil Cutherbert and directed by commercial whiz Kinka Usher in his feature debut) has all the qualities so often missing in film: It's clever, amusing, clever, visually inventive, clever, well-cast . . . did anyone say it was clever?
For watching "Mystery Men" is a bit like sitting next to a brilliant person at a dinner party who just won't shut up. Because this film is so self-conscious and, like Mr. Furious and friends, has a tendency to try too hard, it's an effort you end up admiring more than completely loving. Influenced by its betters, films such as "Brazil," "Buckaroo Banzai" and even "Blade Runner," it's destined to join them all in cult film heaven.
Our trio of heroes make their entrance during an attempted robbery of a retirement home by the heartless Red Eyes gang. With the Blue Rajah erratically hurling forks and spoons (knives wouldn't be sporting), the Shoveler unloading on the wrong targets and Mr. Furious not as mad as he'd like to be, these wannabes do as much damage to themselves as to the bad guys.
Fortunately, the justly famous Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear), Champion City's resident superhero, puts in an appearance and sets things right. It's back to the coffee shop for this lot, where Mr. Furious has his eye on a new waitress (Claire Forlani) and all three engage in the kind of "what's holding us back" post-mortems that is their forte.
Unknown to the group, Captain Amazing has his problems, too. We catch up to the local hero in his limo, where he's berating his agent (Ricky Jay) about losing the lucrative Pepsi endorsement. That's right, this superhero shills for products like Mighty Whitey toothpaste and has as many logos on his chest as a stock car champion.
The problem is that the Captain is so good at what he does that he's already eliminated the kind of worthy opponents that keep sponsors happy. His solution is a novel one: He connives to have his greatest rival, Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush), released from an asylum and put on the streets again.
Casanova, obviously, is not without his wiles, and soon enough our three "jive superheroes," as a scoffer calls them, realize that if anyone is going to save Champion City from a wave of Casanova crime, it has to be them.
Considerably daunted, their first thought is to increase their number. Against their better judgment, they add Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell), who's only invisible when no one's looking, and the pestilent Spleen (Paul Reubens), who has turned flatulence into a nearly fatal art form.
Joining up as well are the Bowler (Janeane Garofalo), who carries around the skull of her genuine superhero father, Carmine, in a crystal bowling ball, and the mysterious Sphinx (Wes Studi), whose strength lies in such baffling aphorisms as "He who questions training only trains himself in asking questions." And don't forget the eccentric Dr. Heller (Tom Waits), a genius at designing nonlethal weapons. Next stop, Cha^teau Casanova.
All this takes place in an extravagant visual world, part Batman's Gotham but with a loopiness of its own devising, contributed to by production designer Kirk M. Petruccelli, costumer Marilyn Vance and a small handful of visual effects houses.
With expert and well-matched comic actors such as Stiller, Macy and Garofalo on the team, "Mystery Men" has no trouble creating a consistent flow of amusement. Typically, however, the film undercuts three of its most potent performers (Rush, Azaria and Reubens) by giving them all either accents or vocal mannerisms that are more grating than entertaining. Knowing when to stop is as much an asset for a film as knowing where to go, and "Mystery Men," having skillfully mastered one, would benefit by showing more of the other.
Mystery Men, 1999. PG-13, for comic action violence and crude humor. A Golar/Lloyd Levin/Dark Horse production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Kinka Usher. Producers Lawrence Gordon, Mike Richardson, Lloyd Levin. Executive producer Robert Engelman. Screenplay Neil Cuthbert, based on the comic book series by Bob Burden. Cinematographer Stephen H. Burum. Editor Conrad Buff. Costumes Marilyn Vance. Music Stephen Warbeck. Production design Kirk M. Petruccelli. Art director Barry Chusid. Set decorator Victor Zolfo. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes. Hank Azaria as The Blue Rajah. Claire Forlani as Monica. Janeane Garofalo as The Bowler. Greg Kinnear as Captain Amazing. William H. Macy as The Shoveler. Kel Mitchell as Invisible Boy. Paul Reubens as The Spleen. Geoffrey Rush as Casanova Frankenstein. Ben Stiller as Mr. Furious. Wes Studi as The Sphinx. Tom Waits as Dr. Heller.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times