Blessed with a wondrously gifted comic cast and full of droll details, Mystery Men struggles in fits and spurts towards its climax. Transcendently witty in parts, it's also woefully sophomoric in others. Still, when this movie is rolling, it's gleefully on target, thanks primarily to the mordantly cocky Stiller and Janeane Garofalo as a latecomer to the superhero gang; her secret weapon is a bowling ball in which her dead father's head is encased. The comic chemistry between these two is fierce, and when you add the dryly funny Macy and the endearing Azaria (who finally gets a chance to let loose with his comic gifts), it's a hilarious joyride. Too bad that the gas tank is only half-full; this stunning cast deserves a first-rate vehicle. It also stars Tom Waits as a weapons expert, Claire Forlani as the requisite babe and Paul Reubens (aka Pee-Wee Herman) as the Spleen, the world's most flatulent superhero. --Mark Englehart
Champion City has been all but cleared of crime by the phenomenally skilled and heavily corporate-sponsored Captain Amazing, with the result that your average working stiff of a superhero has to work hard to make any sort of a difference. The story begins with three such stiffs: The Shoveller (imagine William H. Macy's self-deprecating little twitch as he admits "We fight crime, call it what you will"), the Blue Rajah (Hank Azaria with a pukka British accent - he throws forks and spoons at his enemies but refuses to throw knives because "my name's not Stab Man or Knifey Boy, it's the Blue Rajah") and Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller - he goes into an impressive murderous smoulder and then basically jumps up and down a lot and yells). Roundly defeated when they attempt to break up a robbery in an old folks' home, they are further humiliated when Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear) finishes the job, takes the credit and treats them like wannabes.
Amazing himself is frustrated with the lack of newsworthy challenges; it's starting to affect his sponsorship deals, so in his secret identity as billionaire Lance Hunt (only Mr. Furious thinks they look alike; as the Shoveller wearily points out "Look, Lance Hunt wears glasses, Captain Amazing doesn't - how can he fight crime? He wouldn't be able to see!") he arranges the release from the lunatic asylum of notorious supervillain and flakeroo Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush, chewing the scenery with gusto). Casanova promptly blows up the asylum, kidnaps the Captain and tells him to prepare to die ("Yeah, see, that's the part I have a problem with" says a pinioned and sweating Amazing, like a studio executive about to be fired.) Fortunately, however, Mr. Furious has witnessed the kidnap, and he persuades his team to swing into action. But will they be able to get past Casanova's bodyguards, the ruthless but exceptionally groovy Disco Boys? ("You have GUNS?" says an incredulous Stiller to an advancing Disco Boy. "THAT's your power? Not even, like, a gold chain or something?") Well, no they won't, and after a nasty beating they set about recruiting some more manpower. But will they actually manage to rescue the Captain? Probably not.
This deeply silly movie has so many idiotic pleasures that I wish I could just tell you the whole plot, but I won't. The cast is stunning; witness Janeane Garofalo as The Bowler, an abrasive young woman whose lethal bowling ball is moulded around her father's skull ("You made a bowling ball out of your dad's head?" "No. The guy at the pro shop did it.") Clare Forlani is great as Stiller's wonderfully uninterested love interest ("Sorry about yesterday. I guess I can come across pretty threatening," he says, in a hamfisted attempt at flirting. "I don't find you threatening," she replies. "Oh," he says, his swagger minutely deflated. "At all," she adds.) Wes Studi sends up his Last-of-the-Mohicans charisma as The Sphinx ("He can, like, cut guns in half with his mind," breathes the Shoveller), a motivational guru who takes our heroes in hand and trains them with a mixture of knitting, battle practice and trite little slogans. "Why am I balancing a tack hammer on my head?" asks an impatient Mr. Furious. "He who balances a tack hammer on his head will always go ahead with a balanced attack," replies the Sphinx.
Geoffrey Rush maybe gets the statuette for his delirious Casanova Frankenstein. You can see him enjoying himself, licking his lips and savouring his fake German accent, recovering from each setback with camp sang-froid; as the Mystery Men push home their attack on his lair, he calls a retreat and urges his men to "Focus, people, focus!" like a demented theatre director. Nice to see Paul Reubens on flying form; the Spleen has one of those lisps that you need wet weather gear to protect yourself from, and I liked his charmingly naive way of greeting people: "I'm the Spleen, if you wanna know what my power is, pull my finger." Even Louise Lasser pops up as the Blue Rajah's long-suffering mother. There is much more to enjoy in this movie, provided you aren't looking for solemnity, depth or human dignity of any kind. I don't suppose there will ever be a Mystery Men 2 (More Mysterious), since this thing flopped on theatrical release. Pity. It's worth the last three Star Wars movies put together, and I include "Return of the Jedi" in that.
Under those circumstances that fact that it made me sit up in my seat, absorb every scene and laugh out loud hard and long is a testament to the insane optimism and superb performances that fill this wonderful and overlooked film to the brim.
These are the sort of superheros I know I could join:
The Shoveller (William H Macy) "I shovel really well...";
Mr Furious (Ben Stiller) who gets angry a lot and has a running comic book monologue about his life;
The Blue Raj - fantastic master of throwing deadly cutlery - but not knives;
Invisible Kid - who can turn invisible - but only when nobody is looking;
The Bowler - with her super-powered bowling ball containing the skull of her murdered father... "You put his skull in your bowling ball?" "Of course not!" she replies tartly and pauses, "I had the guy in the shop do it..."
...and many more.
Knockout turns from famous faces like Geoffrey Rush as the sadistic Casanova Frankenstein with Eddie Izzard as his disco obsessed henchman, and the patronising Captain Amazing, protector of Champion City - who gets his arch enemy released to bump up his own ratings and get some of his corporate sponsorship back.
Amazing tales, sparkling dialogue and a rousing cheer at the end. Sends you back into the real world with a big smile on your face and a question in your heart about what you own powers might possibly be...
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