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Mystery Men (1999)
Director: Kinka Usher

review by Tony Lee

"We're not your classic superheroes, we're not the favourites. We're the other guys." The boorish Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear) is the only effective hero in town, but his publicity seeking professionalism has put criminals out of business, and behind bars in the lunatic asylum, so there's no further need of his brand-name bravery or media product placement services. Unless...
   The main characters start out as a bunch of losers: the Shoveler (William H. Macy), the Blue Raja (a turbaned Brit who throws forks), and biker Mr Furious (Ben Stiller). Together, they can't prevent the opening's raid on an old people's home but, with help from the Spleen (Paul Reubens, whose fart-jokes are at least non-lethal), and Janeane Garofalo as the vengeful daughter of murdered hero, the Bowler (guess what's inside her bowling ball!), the working class super-team do manage to vandalise the arch-villain's limo, much to the displeasure of wicked Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush), and his campy disco-club thugs, led by Eddie Izzard, who are plotting the destruction of Champion City. The Mystery Men need guidance if their plan to rescue the captured Captain Amazing, and save the city, is to succeed. Wes Studi turns up just in time as the enigmatic Sphinx. New costumes, some attitude adjustment, and teamwork are what he suggests.
   Should Macy's Shoveler abandon his crime-fighting ambitions and stay at home with his wife and family? Can Mr Furious overcome the twin frustrations of obscurity and failure? Is there really a place in the superhero pantheon for the flatulent Spleen? Will the clumsy Blue Raja ever use a knife? This is a curiosity: a comedy fantasy adventure, based on a comicbook with a distinctly satirical slant and plenty of humour, in both simple and sophisticated modes. Simple? The bad guy's henchmen carry big guns, while their opponents remain unarmed. Sophisticated? In a twisted evocation of quantum theory's observer-influenced reality, Invisible Boy can only use his power when nobody's watching him. Watch out for Tom Waits as a pacifist weapons' designer, and Lena Olin - wasted in a merely decorative role as the super-villain's girlfriend. Only fanboys with access to digital freeze framing are likely to spot Stacey Travis as one of two identically costumed 'wonder women' at the super-team's recruitment drive, or Armageddon director, Michael Bay, as one of the frat boys gang. And, I've no doubt there are other in-joke walk-ons yet to be discovered but, vitally, Mystery Men almost transcends the tawdry schlock worship of its genre spoof origin to deliver a sense of achievement and genuine wonder, when these former no-hopers win through against all the odds, in the films' action-packed finale.
   It's not as fast-moving or imaginative as W.D. Richter's marvellously eccentric, The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai: Across The Eighth Dimension (1985), nor is it quite as wacky as John Carpenter's hilariously affected Big Trouble In Little China (1986), but it has enough going for it to warrant the attention of anyone who thinks the whole screen superhero phenomena is always at its best when played for laughs.
previously published in VideoVista #19
Related item:
tZ  X-Men - film review by Tony Lee
Mystery Men
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