Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Unsung!: Mystery Men

I just cannot help imagining what the reaction to this film would have been if it had just been allowed to sit on a studio shelf for seven years.

Could’a… should’a… would’a…

Mystery Men (1999)

With all the hoopla here at F This Movie! this week heralding the Rise of a certain Dark Knight, it seems like the perfect time to discuss Mystery Men, the 1999 superhero comedy. This film was made two years after the Tim Burton Batman cycle spun to a close with Joel Schumacher’s truly awful Batman and Robin. It would be another six or seven years before superheroes flew back into theaters and the mainstream again with Batman Begins and Iron Man. Oh, if Mystery Men had only been released in 2006! As it stands its lifetime gross was a little less than $30 million, and because its budget was more than $60 million, I do not think we will be seeing a Mystery Men Rises any time soon.

THE PLOT IN BRIEF: Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), The Shoveler (William H. Macey), and the Blue Raja (Hank Azaria) are loser superhero wannabes in dark and gloomy Champion City. They cannot catch a break until Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear) is kidnapped by his arch-nemesis, Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush). After recruiting a rag-tag group of other semi-super heroes -- including Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell), the Spleen (Paul Reubens), and the Bowler (Janeane Garofalo) -- and training with the mysterious Sphinx (Wes Studi), our heroes are ready to fight for truth, justice, and the end of disco music.
The performances here are all first rate and the film features great work from a few performers of whom I have never been particularly fond. Ben Stiller, always hard to take in large doses, has the single best role of his career here as a superhero whose only super power is his boundless rage. I have never been a big fan of Eddie Izzard, but he acquits himself nicely as henchman and disco boy Tony P.  I have always thought that Geoffrey Rush tends to overact, but here it suits his over-the-top super villain character. Rush is a hoot chewing the scenery and delivering lines such as “Ve vill crrrrush Champion City, and still have time left to GET DOWN UND BOOGIE!”

The script adheres pretty strictly to the standard superhero origin story, but adds sustained comic dialogue scenes to the mix. It might just be a case of how many goddamn times I have seen this thing, but Mystery Men contains endlessly quotable dialogue, including lines like “That’s right, Mother. Your son’s a limey fork-flinger. Hard cheese to swallow, I know, but there it is!” The film also features what must be the hundredth parody of/homage to the pre-battle speech in Henry V, only in Mystery Men it revolves around an egg salad sandwich.

SECRET FACT: It is obvious that either in the shooting stage or the looping stage, some of the actors were listening to the bootleg tape, first aired on the Howard Stern radio show, of William Shatner recording dialogue for an electronic Star Trek board game. Somehow, two of Shatner’s lines from that infamous recording session made it into the film: “You say ‘sabotage,’ I say ‘sabo-TADGE,’” and “Don’t correct me -- it sickens me.”

The special effects, production design, and costumes in this film are all first rate. Many times when a movie is a parody, the technical side is allowed to slide, as if the production team thinks that shitty production values will somehow become part of the joke. The fantastic urban world of Mystery Men seems inspired in equal parts by the Tim Burton Batman films, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Mystery Men also features intricate model work and CGI that I contend still holds up thirteen years later. Universal spent a lot of money on this film, and it shows.

The film is entertaining to watch just to spot the many cameos of the famous and soon-to-be-famous.  One-time Howard Stern Show sidekick Artie Lange appears as the leader of the Red-Eye Gang.  Comedians Dane Cook and Dana Gould show up during the superhero recruiting sequence as The Waffler and Squeegee Man, respectively. Michael Bay, the man who would go on to ruin movies forever, has a bit part as a villainous Frat Boy. Cee-Lo Green (identified in the end credits as Thomas Burton) has a blink-and-you-will-miss-it cameo as an Evil Rapper. Sharp-eyed viewers will also spot Devo frontman Mark Motherbaugh, magician Ricky Jay, singer Jody Watley, and Mystery Men director Kinka Usher.

I have never understood the failure of this film. It has laughs, it has brains, and it has heart. It has Tom Waits as a granny-loving, non-lethal weapons inventor living in an abandoned amusement park. Mystery Men is being released for the first time on Blu-ray disc TODAY! Go out and buy it on your lunch hour and experience for yourself, first hand, this crazy chicken world.

Vaya con Dios.


  1. Replies
    1. Of COURSE you can enjoy Jawbreaker. I was just surprised to see it included with those other movies. I saw Jawbreaker in a theater. I'll say it.

  2. One question I've had about this movie is, what happens to Lena Olin's character after she gives the fork to Casanova Frankenstein? I believe she disappears from the movie, and the movie makes no further reference to her.

  3. Yes, I was wondering that the other night too! She disappears. All I know us that this is NOT explained in the deleted scenes...

  4. Oh, yes... to be 37 again... that would be something...

  5. I absolutely forgot Tom Waits was in this movie. I only wish he talked exactly like he sang. But yes, I was a supporter of this movie when it came out. I'd more or less forgotten about it, and I think it's time to revisit it. There are just not enough Paul Reubens performances out there.

  6. Not one real laugh in the entire film for me. Wanted to like it too.Just re watched today. Not one real laugh in the whole flick. For me anyway.

  7. "You put your fathers skull in a bowling ball?"

    "Oh, no... Guy at the pro-shop did it for me."