Mystery Men

As “Mystery Men” begins, Champion City super hero Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear) is facing tough times. The problem is, Amazing is so good at cleaning up crime that there aren’t any decent super villains to defend the city from anymore.


That’s good news for Champion City, but bad news for Amazing, who must keep up appearances in order to impress his sponsors. He’s just lost one major sponsor, and if things don’t pick up, Amazing will become just another has been.

Welcome to the colorful, tongue-in-cheek world of “Mystery Men,” a comic book import that is a prime example of style of substance. A lot of effort has gone into making the comic book page come alive (the film is a production designer and visual effects artist wet dream), yet most of the situations and dialogue are as flat as the printed page.

I didn’t hate the movie, but I really wanted to like it more than I did. Every time I was ready to surrender to the film’s charms the filmmakers would break the spell. After two or three times that gig becomes old, which it too bad because I really found the characters endearing and engaging.

Director Kinka Usher knows how to put on one hell of a show, but his comic timing needs work. A lot of work. He’s fortunate to surround himself with extremely talented actors, yet he trips them up at every turn with mindless action and long, boring passages of dialogue. At 111 minutes, the film also seems long. “Mystery Men” would have been a much better film at 90 minutes.

That way, Usher could have trimmed out some of the fat that stands between this film and a really good film. I couldn’t believe that I would find myself bored during this film, but there were moments that really tried my patience. You could feel the audience’s impatience every time the film slowed down.

When the film does cook, it delivers the goods, and then some. Neil Cuthbert’s screenplay (based on the Dark Horse comic book) is filled with hilarious little bits, delicious one-liners and delightful riffs on the super hero genre in general. Even the story is more than serviceable.

In order to improve his popularity, Captain Amazing has his arch nemesis Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush) released from the insane asylum. Amazing knows full well that it will only be a matter of hours before Frankenstein resorts back to criminal behavior. Then he will come to the rescue of Champion City once again, emerging the hero.

Unfortunately, Frankenstein has been planning for this moment for 20 years. After capturing Amazing, Frankenstein threatens to annihilate Champion City. With Captain Amazing out of the picture, that leaves way for a new breed of super hero. Well, they’re a new breed of something.

We first meet Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), The Blue Raja (Hank Azaria) and The Shoveler (William H. Macy) at the beginning of the film, when the trio of wannabe super heroes attempt to thwart a robbery at a senior citizen’s home.

Even though the trio are upstaged by Captain Amazing, they’re encouraged to continue their crime fighting efforts. Their skills come in handy when Furious learns that Amazing has been kidnaped, and rallies the troops in an effort to save him and the day.

The three are joined by The Bowler (Janeane Garofalo, whose weapon is a bowling ball with her dead father’s skull imbedded in the middle), The Spleen (Paul Reubens, whose weapon is usually silent but deadly), Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell), and the Sphinx (Wes Studi), whose words of wisdom are nothing more than double talk.

They have until midnight to free Captain Amazing and stop Frankenstein, his female assistant (Lena Olin) and his gang members from destroying the city. That means coming together as a team, something Mr. Furious is reluctant to do. This little day trip from the rest of the plot is one of the script’s worst contrivances.

When they do come together as one and raid Frankenstein’s castle, the film overdoses on its own visual and special effects. There is so much going on or exploding that the characters tend to get lost in the melee. There’s no room for them to breathe much less make an impression.

That’s too bad, because as played by these actors, the characters are people you actually get to know and like. To dismiss all of their good will in favor of pyrotechnics is a mistake. Less would have been more in this case.

Whenever Ben Stiller and Janeane Garofalo get together I seem to have a good time, and their pairing in “Mystery Men” is no different. When they’re on the screen together I can’t help but laugh. Garofalo is especially funny as The Bowler, who is out to revenge her father’s death before going back to graduate school. She delivers Cuthbert’s sharp lines with the precision of a surgeon.

William H. Macy is also a delight, a man who believes that he ability to swing a shovel is a gift from God. Macy delivers his lines with such conviction you believe him.

As super villain Casanova Frankenstein, Geoffrey Rush seems to have a lot of fun as he snarls at the camera and chews the scenery with delight. Roles like this are always larger than life, and both the actor and writer respect those parameters.

The rest of the cast does just fine, while technically, the film is a marvel. Champion City looks like a hybrid of “Dark City” and “Blade Runner,” with just enough “Batman” thrown in for good measure. The production design is convincing, and so are the film’s numerous visual and special effects, even though they tend to get in the way.

“Mystery Men” isn’t a film I would sit through twice, but I don’t feel guilty for having sat through it once. I just wish it was a better movie. The potential was there, the director just didn’t exploit it.

CHAMPIONING A NEW BREED OF SUPER HERO

MYSTERY MEN

Ben Stiller, Hank Azaria, Janeane Garofalo, Geoffrey Rush, Greg Kinnear, William H. Macy, Paul Rubens, Kel Mitchell, Wes Studi in a film directed by Kinka Usher. Rated PG-13. 111 Minutes.

LARSEN RATING: $4



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