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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.

Real-life movie moment

The movie: “Mystery Men” (1999); dir. by Kinka Usher; starring Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, Janeane Garofalo, Hank Azaria, Paul Reubens, Geoffrey Rush, Greg Kinnear.

The moment: While shoveling piles of snow out of the driveway, I unearthed the frozen-solid corpse of a baby mouse. As I flung it off the shovel, it fell a few feet in front of the cat … who beat feet like Pete Doherty from a Narc-Anon meeting.

The correlation: I like to think that Dr. Heller would be proud of this, my discovery of the Deployment-Ready Mousenator, a new non-lethal weapon even simpler and more effective than, say, a Blamethrower.

10 dastardly movie villains

Little Bill Daggett: a villain unlike any other.

Little Bill Daggett: a villain unlike any other.

I’m a villain girl.

Yes, I know the history of cinema is filled with do-gooder types who rob from the rich, give to the poor, cuff up the bad guys and try, in their kind-hearted ways, to rid the world of wrongdoing. I even know that these men and women usually end up celebrating with pints while the other guys rot in prison cells or asylums or push up daisies. These characters, the good guys with honorable intentions and clean consciences, they have their shining moments.

But the villains? Well, the villains are way more interesting.

Twisty and edgy and scary, they do it for me. Always have. To be fair, though, who doesn’t love a great villain? There’s something about the vicarious thrill of watching the bad eggs do all the things we don’t have the guts to do. And the really crazy ones — the Norman Bates types, the killers and the maniacs — they fascinate us too. The dark side of human nature, the cobweb-covered hidden parts of the psyche, draw us in. 

So how’s about I initiate a little celebration of villainy (the good guys get enough press, if you ask me) with this list of 10 awesomely mean-spirited, wily and just plain evil villains:

1. Little Bill Daggett, “Unforgiven” — “You have never hated anyone in your entire life as much as you hate Gene Hackman in this movie” insists my friend Jason the Comedian, and damn if he isn’t right. There’s no villain more hateful than the amoral, swaggering, ruthless Little Bill Daggett in Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.” He is the human embodiment of villainy, evil incarnate, and he eyes everyone he meets the way a lioness sizes up a limping gazelle. Emotions don’t concern him; people mean nothing; murder merits not a second thought. Bill’s stunning lack of humanity solidifies his spot as the meanest bad guy of all-time.

Col. Landa speaks softly, but he carries a big pipe.

Col. Landa speaks softly, but he carries a big pipe.

2. Colonel Hans Landa, “Inglourious Basterds” — In the process of writing, directing and producing one of the best films of 2009, that brainy sicko genius Quentin Tarantino created Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a smooth-talking Jew hunter possessed of probing intellect, unbelievable cunning and lacerating wit. This wily chap, who treats everything as a social experiment, takes such pure delight in seeking out and devouring weakness it’s impossible not to laugh along with him. Just don’t lie to him. Ever.

3. Max Cady, “Cape Fear” — What makes Max Cady (Robert Mitchum in ’62, DeNiro in ’91) such an iconic villain is his pure, unyielding relentlessness. Single-minded to the point of murder, he refuses to stop his mission to rain down a vengeance storm upon the lawyer who put him in prison. His determination — which leads to a most unsettling, nightmare-inducing car trip — makes him practically invincible. And everyone knows that there’s nothing scarier than evil you just can’t kill.

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Disrespect Chigurh's bob at your own peril...

4. Anton Chigurh, “No Country for Old Men” — Before the Coen brothers’ eerily calm, otherworldly assassin Anton Chigurh strolled into our lives, we never had any reason to fear cattle guns, Buster Brown coiffures or coin tosses. Now we can’t pick stray pennies off the ground without shuddering. Writer Cormac McCarthy created this iconic figurehead of evil, but Javier Bardem brings him to wicked, freaky life in Oscar-worthy ways. Chigurh’s the kind of baddie you won’t soon forget.

5. The Joker (Heath Ledger), “The Dark Knight” — If it’s true there’s nothing scarier than a bad guy who refuses to die, it’s also true that nothing inspires a mean case of the wiggins like a villain who has no logical reason for anything he does. In his role as The Joker, the late Ledger went to dank, unsavory depths to create a character so raving mad he lights mountainous heaps of cash on fire and drives pencils in the craniums of hardened goodfellas. The Joker’s beyond reason, and that makes him one seriously terrifying mischief-maker.

6. Annie Wilkes, “Misery” — For some reason, the really frightening movie villains always seem to be male, or non-human, or both. Not so with Kathy Bates’ startling turn as disturbed psycho fan Annie, a character so creepy she probably lurks in the mind of every writer who hits the NY Times best-seller list. Bates makes us feel (figuratively and literally) the hammer blows of Annie’s rage. Then, in a flash, she turns sweet, accomodating and gentle … and that’s when the real chills come calling.

7. Keyser Soze, “The Usual Suspects” — Something tells me Bryan Singer had no idea the mysterious bad guy who wielded immeasurable power in 1995’s film noir hit would become such a pop-culture icon. After all, how can we fear a villain who has no face? It has everything to do with the “things you don’t see are scarier than the things you do” principle. The fact we don’t see him only heightens the anxiety. There’s not much more horrifying than a bad guy who’s everywhere and nowhere all at once. 

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When Hopkins is done with you, you'll never drink Chianti again.

8. Dr. Hannibal Lecter, “The Silence of the Lambs” — No list of iconic evildoers would be complete without the name “Hannibal Lecter” on it, but that’s not why he merits inclusion. Lecter’s scare power, as played by Sir Anthony Hopkins, comes from his uncanny ability to read people’s darkest secrets and use them to get exactly what he wants (there’s a bit of Lecter in Col. Landa, it seems). That he’s also a cannibalistic serial killer is almost beside the point — he rips into human frailty like a plate of fava beans. How tasty and terrifying.

9. Casanova Frankenstein, “Mystery Men” — Sometimes villains don’t have to be scary to make a big impression on us. Nobody knows that better than Geoffrey Rush, who makes being bad look so effortlessly cool as Casanova Frankenstein, the glib, supersmart supervillain (he invented a cholorform-deploying portable enticement snare!) out for the blood of the dim Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear). He’s witty, charming and deliciously mean-spirited. Who needs murder and mayhem, again?

10. Joan Crawford, “Mommie Dearest” — Moms, according to our collective human consciousness, are supposed to be kind, warm and comforting. So when a movie mom goes off the grid — in the all-noble way Faye Dunaway does in “Mommie Dearest” — it’s the stuff of paralyzing night terrors. Also, there’s a very good reason wire hangers have fallen out of fashion. Watch this movie if you’re screaming to know why.

Honorable mentions: Loren Visser (“Blood Simple”); Norman Bates (“Psycho”); Lester Long (“Clay Pigeons”); Commodus (“Gladiator”)