Mystery Men - 1999
Mystery Men, released Aug 6, 1999. Directed by Kinka Usher
It is not very often that in reviewing a film that one gets the idea that a movie simply had too much budget, but Mystery Men is one of the occasions (there are others, 2012's John Carter is another example).
With a visual style that apes the Batman movies of preceding years, Mystery Men's saga of a second-rate superhero team that has to work to both fill out their less than illustrious roster (they turn away Pencilhead, among others) and then they have to congeal into a force to stop Casanova Frankenstein and his henchmen (the Disco Boys, who cry out angrily when confronted about the passing into nostalgia of their musical genre, "disco is not dead! Disco is life!"), this movie directed by Kinka Usher has to fight to keep its quirky strangeness intact when the CGI and grandiose movie sets begin to overwhelm it.
Ben Stiller (as Mr. Furious) and William H. Macy (the Shoveler) team up at night with Hank Azaria (the Blue Raja) to fight petty crime, with often disastrous results. From a distance they admire the highly effective and more familiar in a Superman-kind-of-way Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear), who tackles the big-time villains (and has his uniform covered in brand-name endorsement patches). But when Captain Amazing disappears, captured by the psychotic Casanova Frankenstein (played by Geoffrey Rush), then Furious, Shoveler and Blue Raja need to up their game in order to rescue Amazing and to stop the growing power of Casanova Frankenstein over their city.
To pad their team, they hold superhero-team tryouts, and out of an assortment of bizarre applicants only The Bowler (Janeane Garofalo) shows any skill at superheroing: she can hurl a bowling bowl into the air which then careens about like a guided missile, annihilating targets, returning to her hands like Captain America's shield. However, once the bowling bowl has returned, she chats with the skull embedded into the center of the ball, the remains of her father who was slain by Casanova Frankenstein's main henchman Tony P (played by Eddie Izzard), and as the story progresses we learn that the bowling ball wants revenge.
The movie is based on the comic books of Bob Burden whose stories both satirize and parody comic book superheroes, but also builds an alternative world where strange and un-normal people struggle and thrive in a mirror world that is in many ways more realistic than anything from Metropolis or Gotham City.
Mystery Men is flawed by how hard the production is trying to make the film look and feel like a legitimate superhero movie from a big production house, with slo-mo crashes and explosions, and the other detritus of large budgets, unneccessarily limiting the more interesting story of how this odd superhero team works out its interpersonal problems. Mystery Men's plot isn't particularly original either, but in a clever way the characters push out from amid the claustrophobia of familiar superhero cliché and present a unique and entertaining alternative world from out of staid superhero mythos.
Original Page Jan 2020
Letters from Hollywood: Inside the Private World of Classic American Movemaking
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