Mystery Men
directed by Kinka Usher
(Universal Pictures, 1999)

There's trouble in Champion City. The city's supreme super hero, Captain Amazing, is on the edge of obsolescence -- not because he can't do his job, but because he's done it too well. He's vanquished every last one of the city's super villains. And on top of that -- or because of it -- he's begun to lose his corporate sponsors. Poor Captain Amazing.

Fortunately, there's hope for the captain (Greg Kinnear) and Champion City -- hope in the guise of half-dozen superhero wannabes: The Mystery Men.

The Mystery Men, initially a trio led by Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), have been trying for 12 years to break into the superhero business without much luck, and even less talent.

The Blue Raja, a.k.a. Jeffrey (Hank Azaria), speaks in a phony English accent and hurls silverware with deadly accuracy. It's hard to say which hurts more. The Shoveler, a.k.a. Eddie (William H. Macy), is very good at whacking people with garden tools, while Mr. Furious, a.k.a. Roy, simply goes into a rage.

They get their big chance when Captain Amazing's alter ego, Lance Hutton, helps free supervillain Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush), who responds by capturing the captain and turning a doomsday machine on Champion City.

Mystery Men could be the silliest film of 1999, possibly even the silliest film of the decade. But beneath its surface silliness are crosscurrents of social commentary that serve the film and its audience well.

Among Casanova's villainous allies are the Suits, a gang of vested corporate execs whose weapon is downsizing, and the Rappers, who, as Casanova puts it, "put the rhyme in crime." Their verse is the worst, and they're not shy about spouting it. Personal trainers take a few hits on the chin, too, with The Sphinx, a legendary superhero called upon to whip the Mystery Men into action with group hugs and aphorisms like "Do not doubt your powers or you empower your doubters."

Adding even less fuel to the Mystery Men's fire are their new recruits: The Spleen (Paul Reubens), who uses a human gas attack; Invisible Boy, a.k.a. James (Nickelodeon's Kel Mitchell), who may or may not be able to turn invisible; and The Bowler (Janeane Garofalo), a.k.a. Caroline. Though anatomically unequipped to be a Mystery Man, Caroline does the most damage to the enemy and the least to the script, using her in-your-face attitude to good advantage every time someone in the group has doubts about her powers or their own. She also has the best schtick: a crystal bowling ball with a most unusual implant -- the skull of her murdered father.

Not everything in Mystery Men works as well as director Kinka Usher would like it to. Some of the action scenes drag on too long, and there's nothing in the ending that compares to the opening concept itself, which makes Mystery Men a bit anticlimactic. But there's enough going on for just about everyone to find something to like, and it all happens so quickly that you won't have to wait long for it. Just be prepared to feel very silly. And to laugh very hard.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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