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No. 33: “Mystery Men” (1999)

“We’ve got a blind date with destiny, and it looks like she’s ordered the lobster.”
~~The Shoveller

Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear, comic actor supreme) cuts a dashing figure in his aerodynamic, sponsor patch-studded leather suit, and he’d be an outstanding superhero if not for one hiccup: He’s good. He’s so good, in fact, that he’s vanquished all the supervillains and plumb run himself out of a job. Now this blonde superstar with the blinding smile is reduced to taking the gigs his grumbling publicist (Ricky Jay) gets him, like busting up a robbery at an old folks’ home. Poor Captain Amazing learned too late that pride should go before job security in a fall.

Maybe there are people capable of resisting a superhero movie anchored by a flaming imbecile more concerned with keeping his image — Pepsi pulled its sponsorship! — than saving people. Not I. There’s something to this “we’re not your classic heroes” angle that reels me in, even if the story’s told only passably well. Kinka Usher’s “Mystery Men” vaults past “passable” in the first 15 minutes when the deliciously ee-viyill Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush) emerges from his asylum stay ready to perpetrate some villainy. Rush is a marvel of a character actor, but as a supervillain? He’s even better. And because Casanova Frankenstein has twice the wit and triple the brains of his arch-nemesis (who doesn’t even know the plural of “nemesis”), it’s obvious that “Mystery Men” isn’t going to be an epic battle unless Captain Amazing gets some help. And he can’t afford to be picky.

Out from the crevices of Champion City (Gotham/N.Y.C. on acid) emerges a team of do-gooders painfully aware they are not an “elite cadre” of anything except Captain Amazing haters. That’s understandable; the man’s a limelight thief. The leader is Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller, aptly cast), who seems to think being irked and mixing metaphors — he is “a Pantera’s box you do not want to open” — make him a holy terror. His friends, the fork-flinging Blue Raja (Hank Azaria) and the Shoveller (William H. Macy), are less delusional; they see no reason to hire a publicist. “What is there to publicize? The fact that we get our butts kicked a lot?” Shoveller asks. Bent on 86ing Casanova, Mr. Furious enlists Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell), only invisible when no one’s looking, to bring others out of hiding: The Bowler (Janeane Garofalo), whose power comes from her murdered father’s skull encased in a bowling ball; The Spleen (Paul Reubens), cursed with the ability to produce killer farts; and The Sphynx (Wes Studi), theoretically able to halve guns with his mind but who mostly says things like “to learn my teachings, I must first teach you how to learn.” Together they must take on not only Casanova but his Disco Boys, led by Tony P. (Eddie Izzard, a scream), who summons up murderous rage on behalf of disco’s unpopularity. When that doesn’t fly, he uses flaming hairspray.

For a movie like “Mystery Men” to work, atmosphere, action and characters must have a happy marriage. The relationship couldn’t be more harmonious. The look of Champion City and the heroes screams “comic book movie,” with vivid landscapes, colors and costumes meant to elicit laughter more than anything else (The Sphinx’s headdress is … beyond words). The action sequences are played for chuckles, including the team’s vandalism of Casanova’s limo and a hysterical scene where the team’s “daring rescue” of Captain Amazing goes sour. Kudos to the casting director for assembling so many funny actors in one group. They hit every genre of humor: observational (Macy); sophomoric (Reubens, Mitchell); punny (Azaria); savage wit (Garofalo, Rush). Slapstick, corny jokes, putdowns — whatever tickles your funny bone, it’s here. Even Tom Waits is here, in a cameo as loner mad scientist Dr. Heller, inventor extraordinaire of non-lethal weaponry like — ha! — the Blamethrower.

Undoubtedly there are fans of Bob Burden’s “Flaming Carrot Comics” series, which “Mystery Men” loosely draws from, who will find the much-altered film an affront. I’ll speak as a fan of the series and this adaptation: Sometimes changes are an insult. When they preserve the madcap spirit of the source material? Consider them a compliment. Do it, or else Mr. Furious will go Pompeii on your butt.

15 Responses

  1. God I love this movie, and was laughing to myself just reading your review and remembering the scores of terrific one-liners. This is one of my favorite roles for both Janeane Garofalo and Ben Stiller, who are always so great to see together. I haven’t read the comics yet and I know the movie took a huge amount of liberties with the source material, but it never mattered to me since the end result is so funny. Good to see the Kinnear appreciation, and that Tom Waits cameo? Superb.

    “I shovel well. I shovel VERY well.”
    “I guess from now on I ride in a wolf pack… of ONE.”

    Never gets old. You know what else never gets old? The weirdness of Michael Bay’s cameo as one of the frat boys.

    • I didn’t catch the Michael Bay cameo until I read it on Wikipedia! I also didn’t know the Not-So-Goodie Mob was based on a real group, the Goodie Mob, in Atlanta, Ga.

      Given all the bad reviews, I’m happy to find another fan! For me too the one-liners MAKE this movie. My favorite line changes every time I watch the movie, but right now it is:

      “Frack you later, Frankenpuss.”

  2. I remember seeing this for my 10th birthday in theatres. Still a fun ride.

  3. I love this movie.

  4. Ah, old memories.

  5. This movie makes it laugh, especially Rush who steals the show. And the Frat Boys.
    “Dude, can we bring the beer?”
    Casanova Frankenstein (quite possibly the best name ever),
    “Yah, you can bring the beer!”
    Frat Boys cheer and drink.

    Good stuff there.
    But I can’t believe you didn’t mention Tom Waits as the non-lethal weapon inventing mad scientist. He has a great turn in that role (the name of the character escapes me at the moment and I am too lazy to google it right now), and his outfits are also quite outrageous.
    A good choice, I would say.

    • Thanks for mentioning that flagrant error — if you read again, you’ll see Tom Waits gets the spotlight he deserves!

  6. This is, and will probably always remain, a favorite of my fiancee’s family (along with Jingle All The Way which I’m afraid I can’t get behind). I think the first group activity I ever attended with her family was watching this film. The experience was a bit like watching it with a DVD commentary as everyone was quoting diffferent parts, pointing out things only they noticed, and commenting on what each actor in the film had done before and since. I should really go back and take a second un-filtered look at it again, it seems to be a real fan-favorite.

  7. Really? I watched this on USA a few years ago and wasn’t that impressed. In fact, I think I barely laughed at all.

  8. The stuff here is funny, but most of the ad-libbing from the cast is what makes this film a cult classic. Pee-Wee Herman is the best here.

  9. Nice review of a film I’ve heard nothing about.

  10. Love that movie. Particularly the bit with Casanova explaining Captain Amazing’s disguise (essentially wearing glasses) to henchmen who just don’t get it. “But how would he see?”

    • @ Fitz — Oh, to be 10 and see this movie! I envy you.

      @ Encore — You must check it out. It’s certainly the funniest superhero movie I’ve ever seen.

      @ Darren — I have to say I’m kind of thrilled that so many bloggers are supporting “Mystery Men.” It got a lot of negative press with people in a snit about the fact it departed so drastically from the comic book series. The Shoveller and Blue Raja had quite the time accepting the Lance/Captain Amazing dilemma.

      “Lance Hunt wears glasses. Captain Amazing doesn’t.”

  11. This is so retarded. I love it that it wasn’t trying to be serious. It was ridiculous fun.

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