Cyberlizard goes to the movies. Added March 5 2006.

Mystery Men (1999)

Directed by Kinka Usher, starring Greg Kinnear, Ben Stiller, William H Macy, Hank Azaria, Paul Reubens, Wes Studi, Janeane Garofalo, Tom Waits, Kel Mitchell, Geoffrey Rush, Eddie Izzard, Claire Forlani

The plot

In Champion City, there are two entities fighting crime. One is Captain Amazing, a highly effective one-man crimebuster who has been so successful that all his adversaries in dead, in exile or in prison, with the unfortunate side-effect of a decline in corporate sponsorship for the superhero. The other entity is a trio of would-be superheroes - The Shoveller, The Blue Rajah ("Master of Silverware") and Mr Furious - who tend to get walloped by the bad guys in every confrontation.

Ironically, both Captain Amazing and The Shoveller and friends are facing difficult times. The trio have hit a low ebb after a particularly hapless encounter with "The Red-Eyes" in a battle in an old people's home. Captain Amazing for his part feels his career is going into decline now that all his foes have been vanquished. Whereas the trio do little more than sit in their favourite diner and mope about their misfortunes, Amazing (in his alter-ego as bespectacled billionaire Lance Hunt) conspires to have his most dangerous enemy, Casanova Frankenstein, released from a mental asylum so that he can conquer evil again in a more media-friendly manner. However, the tables are turned and Casanova Frankenstein captures the Captain. When news of this reaches the trio, they decide it is down to them to save Champion City.

The film

The subtitle of the film sums this up well: "They're the other guys". In a sense the story is a traditional feelgood one of the underdog's struggle to beat the odds, the underdog(s) in question being The Shoveller and his friends who aspire to be recognised as true heroes in the fight against crime on the same level as Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear), as well as defeating the crimelord Casanova Frankenstein. At the same time a lot of the enjoyment works as both a celebration of, and satire on, the superhero culture. Thus at a recruitment drive we meet other wannabe heroes such as The PMS Avenger or the Waffler, as well as the Bowler (Janeane Garofalo) who joins the team. The Sphinx (Wes Studi), a legendary masked hero who turns up to guide the struggling band, utters banal nuggets of wisdom in the best tradition of some martial arts B-movies. Some of the humour verges on the Pythonesque, such as the Invisible Kid (Kel Mitchell) who's only invisible when nobody is looking at him. Reducing the humour to a somewhat basic level is the figure of the Spleen (Paul Reubens), who fights using his powerful flatulence. Facing them on the side of organised supercrime and working for Frankenstein are such gangs as The Frat-Boys and The Suits ("downsizing all who oppose them"), as well as disco fanatics Tony C and Tony P (the latter played by Eddie Izzard).

What could have been actually a fairly lame attempt at humour works reasonably well throughout the film, aided by a good cast, special effects and admirable sets. Hank Azaria (The Blue Rajah) and Ben Stiller (Mr Furious) are experienced comedy players, but I was pleasantly surprised by William H Macy as the Shoveller and Wes Studi (normally a straight tough-guy actor) as the Sphinx. Geoffrey Rush also plays the saturnine Frankenstein for all it's worth. Kudos to the whole cast, in fact! My only slight quibble with the film was that some of the special effects used to recreate the effects of Frankenstein's death-ray machine were somewhat graphic, albeit obviously exaggerated for a comic effect. Apart from that, if the ridiculous and the spoof are your cup of tea, then it's worth catching.

Watch out for a minor appearance from illusionist Ricky Jay as Captain Amazing's publicist.

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