In an age when big action movie spectaculars like “Rambo” or “Predator” begin to resemble video games, is it surprising that the most popular Nintendo game of all, “The Super Mario Bros.,” gets turned into a movie? Or that the film that results is mostly flash, carnage and visual explosions, with characters as light as their blip-on-the-screen inspirations?
In “The Super Mario Bros.” (citywide), Nintendo heroes Luigi and Mario Mario are metamorphosed into a pair of Brooklyn Italian-American plumbers (played by Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo), accidentally dropped into an alternate dimension of dinosaur-people. It’s a movie split in two: wildly accomplished on one level, wildly deficient on another. If you had to grade it purely on its visual coups--the effects, Dean Semler’s cinematography, the sheer density and bravura of the production design--you’d have to give “Mario Bros.” high marks. If you judged it on the writing, or what we hear of it on the screen, your final score would be feeble.
The movie is a bright, clamorous extravaganza that keeps hammering and exploding away, filling the eyes with breathtaking wonders. The story, one more variation on “rescuing the princess from the evil castle,” has the Marios trying to save pretty Daisy (Samantha Mathis of “Pump Up the Volume”) from the Fascist empire ruled by evil King Koopa (Dennis Hopper, made up and coiffed like a corrupted Rutger Hauer), his race of reptile people, his idiot cohorts Iggy and Spike (Fisher Stevens and Richard Edson), his “devolution” machine and his army of pin-lizard-headed “Goomba” guards--who march around in outsize military coats, and are crazily susceptible to Frankie Yankovic renditions of “Somewhere My Love.”
Koopa’s underworld--a feverish neon-blazing slum, strung with pipes, festooned with fungus and rot--is a Manhattanite variant on the dystopian Los Angeles and London of “Blade Runner” and “Brazil.” “Blade Runner’s” art director, David L. Snyder, is the production designer here, and there’s an overpowering aspect to the visual side of “Mario Bros.”: a maniacal impressiveness. Co-directors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel created the “Max Headroom” movies, as well as the bizarre, failed 1988 updated film noir, “D.O.A.,” and graphic spectaculars are obviously their specialty. They like visual overload, aural attack. They crank up the images while they jack up the rock ‘n’ roll.
But, like a video game itself, when it’s over, the screen goes blank, the mind goes blank. There’s nothing to do but wait for the next game.
It’s not enough to say the script, by another tag-team of writers, including Parker Bennett, Terry Runte (“Mystery Date”) and Ed Solomon (the “Bill & Ted” movies), is obvious, the wisecracks flat or the characters--except for a few brief Brooklyn scenes at the beginning--thin as a razor and not as engaging. The level of inspiration here can be clued by the name of the dinosaur alternate world’s Manhattan--it’s called “Dinohattan.” Does it make sense to make movies from video games? (Should Pac-Man be dangled in front of Danny DeVito?) Of course it does: commercial sense. Given the massive international popularity of the four Nintendo Mario Bros. games, this movie is virtually “pre-sold.” But a built-in audience should be a challenge as well as a reassurance. On the non-technical level, “The Super Mario Bros.” (MPAA-rated PG) dodges the challenge, drowns in the reassurance. The movie knocks your eyes out, at the same time it dulls the mind’s eye. Ultimately, it’s one more stop in the arcade, beckoning, waiting to soak up time and money.
‘Super Mario Bros.’
Bob Hoskins: Mario Mario
John Leguizamo: Luigi Mario
Dennis Hopper: King Koopa
Samantha Mathis: Daisy
A Hollywood Pictures presentation of a Lightmotive/Allied Filmmakers presentation, in association Cinergi Productions, released by Buena Vista Pictures. Directors Rocky Morton, Annabel Jankel. Producers Jake Eberts, Roland Joffe. Screenplay by Parker Bennett, Terry Runte, Ed Solomon. Cinematographer Dean Semler. Editor Mark Goldblatt. Visual effects design Christopher Francis Woods. Costumes Joseph Porro. Music Alan Silvestri. Production design David L. Snyder. Art director Walter P. Martishius. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.