[box cover]

Mystery Men

Universal Home Video

Starring Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, Hank Azaria,
Janeane Garofalo, Geoffrey Rush, Greg Kinnear,
Tom Waits, Wes Studi, and Paul Reubens

Written by Neil Cuthbert
Based on the Dark Horse comic book series by Bob Burden

Directed by Kinka Usher

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If the chaotic devolution of Warner Bros.' Batman series has any moral to its messy madness, it's that the overstuffed, self-hyping genre of comic-book action blow-outs is in desperate need of a shrewd dressing-down. Begun ten years ago with Tim Burton's blockbuster marketing extravaganza, no other strain of action cinema has been as ceaselessly noisy, silly, or insanely indulgent — nor as absent of the narrative talent to raise it above mere flashy excrement.

Enter Mystery Men, the tale of a motley gang of ego-sucking super-losers whose aspiration to Superhero-staus is cruelly undermined by their inept lack of the necessary skill or powers. With the hippest self-deprecating ensemble of 1999 — Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, William H. Macy, Hank Azaria, and Tom Waits — it seemed certain that Batman's excruciating cinematic progeny were finally due for a swift kick in their boy wonders.

Then everything went wrong. Right from the start the hopeless hacks charged with mining Mystery Men's abundant comic potential expose themselves as frauds, and this limp fight against film evil gives in to the dark side in the very first scene.

The plot of Mystery Men, based on the Dark Horse comic-book series by Bob Burden, promised a valiant assault: The metropolis of Champion City has been cleaned of criminal threat by efficient superhero Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear). With no real challenge, Amazing is reduced to product endorsements — his costume is decked with NASCAR-style ad patches — and PR stunts to stay in the public eye. Desperate for a high-profile nemesis, Amazing engineers the release of institutionalized arch-enemy Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush), but he is then quickly captured by the evil fiend, who hatches a plan to destroy the city.

This diabolical turn of events is welcome news for Mr. Furious (Stiller) and his crime-busting team. It means they finally have a chance to save the day without being overshadowed by Amazing's charismatic prowess. Their only obstacle is their distinct lack of power. Furious, see, gets really mad. Really mad. That this doesn't manifest itself in any considerable benefit doesn't occur to him. His sidekicks are only slightly less lame. The Shoveler (Macy) hits people with a shovel, and The Blue Raja (Azaria) dons a turban and affects a haughty Brit accent before flinging forks and spoons at his opponents with startling inaccuracy.

This unintimidating trio enlists the help of a woman (Garofalo) with a powerful bowling ball, a young man (Kel Mitchell) who boasts the power of invisibility (but only when no one is looking), a mysterious sage (Wes Studi), and an inventor of bizarre weapons (Waits). Some of these ideas sound very funny, but execution is key. First-time director Kinka Usher and novice screenwriter Neil Cuthbert show no talent in that regard. Their efforts are so dull and unimaginative that they deserve company only with the most unfunny member of this freak show: The Spleen (Paul Reubens), a disgusting misfit whose power is focused flatulence.

In the very first scene, as Furious, Shoveler, and Raja try vainly to rescue a besieged nursing home, Usher weakly gives in to the uninspired action template. He delivers a noisy, messy, undistinguished fight so reverent of and inebriated with Batman's hollow aesthetics that spoofy possibilities are drowned in carbon-copy fireworks. Perhaps Usher hoped to spoof the genre's bluster, but such a goal would be pure folly as lame duck comics-flicks like Spawn have already pushed the noise barrier to its limit. It's more likely Usher is simply a technical director with no feel for comic textures or irony and so simply generates here another cookie-cutter cliché-fest.

There are moments when the excellent actors break through and show what a gem this film might have been, deflating the superhero milieu with deadpan reserve. Stiller is always funniest in quiet moments, and his interactions with the insecure Macy suggest the seeds of an excellent comedy. Usher, though, can't help but interrupt these natural, interesting scenes with needlessly extreme angles, undermining the cool juxtaposition of their context to the superhero hype Usher can't escape to save his life — or his film.

Also, a film such as this is only as good as its villain, and as fine an actor as Rush may be, Frankenstein is as devoid of character as a bus stop. Aside from his crafty name, there is not a cunning quirk to be found in this evil genius, who is not worthy of licking the shit off Dr. Evil's hip boots.

All concept. No comedy.

Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1. Includes a commentary by Usher, deleted scenes, featurette, soundtrack presentation and music highlights, textual supplements, trailers, and additional material as DVD-ROM content. Keep case.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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