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Mystery Men

Blade Runner meets Naked Gun

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Directed by Kinka Usher

Written by Neil Cuthbert, based on the comic book by Bob Burden

With Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, Geoffrey Rush, Janeane Garofalo, Paul Reubens, Greg Kinnear

Movies that both parody a certain genre and attempt to simultaneously belong to it cannot work; there must be some kind of a universal law to that effect. It’s entirely to the credit of Mystery Men that it almost succeeds despite this.

Part Batman, part Blade Runner, part Naked Gun, part something entirely new and original, Mystery Men is both a spoof of the over-directed, over-produced, and over-merchandised superhero genre and an attempt to genuinely thrill and wow the audience. Give this baby a touch more inventive script and a touch more cohesive look, and, oh boy, we would have a genuine rarity: a movie with special effects, real characters, fun, and excitement. The fact that three out of these four work is already remarkable, and almost compensates for the fact that the screenplay, inventive as it is in details and circumstances, is somewhat by-the-book and lacking when true excitement it concerned.

In the huge metropolis of Champion City, there’s no crime. Any petty crook that dares to rear his head is immediately defeated by dashing Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear). As a result, CA (as citizens affectionately address him), doesn’t have much to do, and his corporate sponsorship deals start to disintegrate. So he arranges for his archenemy, the evil and demented Cassanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush), to be released from confinement. Frankenstein, however, spent the last twenty years hatching (of course!) a diabolical scheme of his own. Soon, the only hope for Champion City is the superhero-wannabes. These include Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), whose amazing superpower is that he gets really, really angry; Shoveler (William H. Macy), who likes to hit his opponents with a shovel; and Blue Rajah (Hank Azaria, the one who does about half a dozen voices on “The Simpsons”), who throws forks and spoons.

This is the summary of the first ten minutes or so; Mystery Men delights in creating all sorts of absurd characters and situations. Some of the best character actors in the business have a chance to sink their creative teeth in some of the weirdest characters around -- and still make them impressively human. Hank Azaria and Janeane Garofalo (who joins the ragtag team later on) are most impressive; and Greg Kinnear, in a rather small part, is -- and I’m not using this word lightly -- perfect.

All the insane proceedings are orchestrated by first-time director Kinka Usher, who clearly has a gift for visuals. Beyond obvious influences, his Champion City also owes a debt to such demented visual stylists as Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (The City of Lost Children). It’s the storytelling that somewhat lags.

The problem is that both the screenplay and the direction are done on a very moment-to-moment basis (not incidentally, this is also a major fault of the movies this one is trying to spoof). There’s such a wealth of imagination in every shot and every wild plot and character detail, that the through-lines -- like character and plot arcs -- are short-charged. These are present, to be sure, and in this aspect Mystery Men is already better than most Hollywood output; but they are largely simplistic.

For all of its running length, this film is enjoyable, funny, rather sweet, and very inventive, but, the thing is, it’s rarely exciting. There’s a great scene when the superhero-wannabes ambush Frankenstein’s limousine in an underground garage, and there’s also a great moment or two in the extended action finale. Otherwise, the screenplay is methodic, too much so. In the end, every one of its misfit band of heroes finds self-worth and uses his or her powers to save the day. What’s depressing is that most of them, indeed, have special powers. I cared more about these people when they were just plain ordinary folks with delusions of importance.

There are comic gems sprinkled aplenty throughout (Garofalo even manages to make a plea in favor of independent movies during the finale), and Mystery Men is constantly an eye-full. I just wish the filmmakers paid a bit more attention to the genre they are spoofing. They clearly understand everything that doesn’t work in it -- they should also have taken care to note what does work in it.