Posted: 08/18/1999


Mystery Men


by Del Harvey

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Attempts to bring comic books to the big screen are nothing new. In the 1940’s BATMAN was a serial that ran weekly at the local cinema. Although the first character was little more than a vigilante in a mask and cape, it was enough to give the viewer’s imaginations a sense of the wonder of comic book characters on the big screen. The visual medium of comic books lends itself to the storyboard style of film, and often the characters have just the right dimensionality for the screen. Until the advent of high-tech special effects, however, comic book stories were limited to miniature sets and horrible looking visual effects that strained the viewer’s belief.

Contemporary comic books feature unusual characters with fantastic powers and some of the most dynamic and inspiring artwork in any industry. When it finally came to the big screen, SUPERMAN made us believe a man could fly and THE MATRIX made us believe humans could bend dimensions. However, effects often overpower the good sense of the filmmaker, as in SPAWN, but the strength of the characters and a good story can keep effects in check, as with THE CROW. And when all the elements are deftly tied together, as in BLADE, the result is very entertaining and usually a boxoffice hit.

Director Kinka Usher’s MYSTERY MEN is not a perfect blending of these elements, but it is not far from it. The seven wannabe superheroes never take themselves serious enough to bog down the comedy, which is the film’s big charm. The “message” element is standard fare: underdog tries and tries until he/she overcomes the impossible.

While the characters operate within varying stratospheres parallel to any normal social environment, a dweeb is still a dweeb and a jock is still a jock - male or female. In MYSTERY MEN, even near-perfect superheroes like Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear) is given altruistic flaws such as ego and vanity, and they are played to perfection. His nemesis, the evil Casanova Frankenstein, is played with just the right amount of theatrics and camp by Academy Award winner Geoffrey Rush, who somewhat resembles a hyper-psychotic Tim Curry from Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Our “sub” -heroes, the titular MYSTERY MEN, possess no greater superpowers than any average Joe or Jill on the street. Mr. Furious’ dubious power of rage is more humorous than threatening, and Ben Stiller nearly steals every scene in this role. The Shoveller, played straight-laced and straight-faced by cinema’s best “straight” man, William H. Macy, wields his shovel of justice with acrobatic aplomb, but with little conviction. The voice of The Simpsons, Hank Azaria, is The Blue Raja, a fork flinging, would-be mystic with Oedipal issues. Presenting an emotional balance to Azaria is Janeane Garofalo as The Bowler, who throws a plexigas ball with her father’s skull encased within. Her father was a true superhero, it seems, with the odd moniker of Carmine The Bowler, and his mere presence, even encased in plexiglas, gives cause for alarm to many evildoers.

The remaining two MYSTERY MEN are Paul Reubens as The Spleen, whose powers should be self-evident from his name, and Kel Mitchell, of Nickelodeon fame, as the Invisible Boy. Only problem is, if you look at him he won’t become invisible.

Non-wannabe supporting cast includes Tom Waits as a mad scientist who designs non-lethal weapons, and Claire Forlani as the waitress at the diner where the MYSTERY MEN hang out. These two provide grounding for our characters, who are true to comic book formula in their complete ignorance of reality.

The film’s comedy comes mainly from the characters’ ability to laugh at themselves and their situations. Director Kinka Usher’s well-developed set-ups and properly timed repetitions lend to the format of a comedic comic book. To punctuate this rhythm there are several surprise moments, such as the self-parody of Reuben’s misdemeanor bust a few years back. The Spleen and Invisible Boy are creeping through the brush surrounding Casanova Frankenstein’s castle hideaway when Invisible looks at Spleen and asks if he farted; not an out-of-the-ordinary question considering. The Spleen defensively responds with “Wasn’t me!” as he feels a tug at his trousers and both characters look down to see a skunk make a beeline for Spleen’s pants leg and immediately begin humping away. Cut to a silhouette of the trio against a fat moon, with Invisible Boy saying, “Go with it,” and bobbing his head like Ray Charles.

MYSTERY MEN is full of nice comedic touches. For a comic book turned film it is a wonderful and enjoyable movie. For a comedy film it is a hoot. As I walked out of the theatre I listened to other viewers discussing their favorite characters and moments. I have mine, but more surprising, I wanted to see more of these characters. Definitely a good sign.

Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly. He lives in Chicago and is a veteran of the Walt Disney Company, Lucasfilm, and the Directors Guild of America.

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