July 22, 1999
MYSTERY MEN. Huh. There might’ve been room for a big budget super hero parody movie in 1999, if you’re into that sort of thing, but it needed better jokes than “ha ha, this would be a terrible super hero. What a dumb name and costume.” This is an impressive cast in a big, expensive comedy with very few laughs.
A group of amateur super heroes – shovel-carrying The Shoveler (William H. Macy, THE LAST DRAGON), fork-throwing Blue Raja (Hank Azaria, HEAT) and leather-jacket wearing Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller, NEXT OF KIN) struggle to find success or recognition. They’re definitely meant to be lovable underdog misfits, but I had trouble respecting them. It’s established that there’s an actual super powered guy called Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear, THE MATADOR) who’s a douche and wears corporate logos like a NASCAR driver but he’s made Champion City so safe that he has to get his arch-nemesis Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush, MUNICH) released from the asylum just to have something to do. Before that happens the unnamed Mystery Men couldn’t be little guys trying to make a different in a harsh world – they’re delusional losers trying to feel important by forcing themselves into a job that they’re not needed for, and are really, really bad at. I did not find them appealing.
But Casanova manages to capture Captain Amazing, and Mr. Furious sees it happen, so they actually have something to do now. They have backyard auditions to try to recruit a larger team of wannabe heroes. Yes, there is a jump-cut montage of Dane Cook, Doug Jones, Dana Gould and others with dumb names like “Squeegee Man” and wearing really bad home made costumes. I guess because the Mystery Men have movie-quality bad costumes (designer: Marilyn Vance, STREETS OF FIRE, THE ROCKETEER) they’re allowed to look down on them.
Most of these characters don’t have powers, but The Bowler (Janeane Garofalo, COP LAND, THICK AS THIEVES) has a ball with a skull inside that’s haunted by her dad and flies around. She has a good line when she avenges her dad’s murder and immediately tells the ball that she’d going to grad school. “That was the agreement.”
There are very funny people in this movie, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that. Paul Reubens had to play a guy with a lisp and warts on his face whose skill is powerful farts. He’s basically a Garbage Pail Kid. Azaria, you see he’s funny because he does a British accent but it’s not his real accent. Kel Mitchell (BATTLE OF LOS ANGELES) does get some mileage as the clueless Invisible Boy. I would not say the same for Eddie Izzard (VALKYRIE) or Pras from the Fugees, who play The Disco Boys. See, because they have bellbottoms and stuff, they like disco. Izzard doesn’t even seem sold on the concept and only half-asses the dance moves.
I guess the funniest part is when they go to train with a guru called The Sphinx (Wes Studi, STREET FIGHTER, UNDISPUTED), and only Mr. Furious isn’t taken in by his formulaic fortune cookie platitudes like “He who questions training only trains himself at asking questions.” When Furious gets fed up, Sphinx says “Your temper is very quick, my friend. But until you learn to master your rage–”
“…your rage will become your master?” he interrupts. “That’s what you were going to say, right? Right?”
But for me Stiller fails to balance being the one guy with common sense but also a cartoonish idiot out of one of his sketches. The worst part is his courting of diner waitress Monica (Claire Forlani, THE ROCK, POLICE ACADEMY: MISSION TO MOSCOW), a generic dreamgirl who teaches him how to be himself, and it’s played seriously as if we’re supposed to be invested in their relationship.
An okay gag is that they argue about whether Captain Amazing and Lance Hunt are the same guy, most arguing that they can’t be because Lance Hunt has glasses. A not good gag is when weapon designer Dr. Heller (Tom Waits, presumably being paid twice what Mojo Nixon was paid for SUPER MARIO BROS.) is demonstrating different weapons and one is called a “blame-thrower” and it makes people blame each other for stuff. Really, that’s all you got is a thing that’s dumb but rhymes with flamethrower? How was everybody satisfied with that?
Rush is good, playing his character very straight, and it’s kind of a cool idea that he’s some kind of ladies man evil genius. But that’s not enough.
I’m not even sure what precisely they’re parodying here. X-MEN came out the next year, so there weren’t even super hero team movies yet. At its best, it does a good job of mimicking Joel Schumacher’s pans through a dark, exaggerated metropolis, and it has themed gangs like those movies. One of them is called the Frat Boys and one of them (with a line even) is Michael Bay. But man, these joke super hero concepts are a nickel a thousand. They kind of make me sad.
MYSTERY MEN is written by Neil Cuthbert (THE RETURN OF SWAMP THING, HOCUS POCUS, THE ADVENTURES OF PLUTO NASH), sort of based on side characters from Bob Burden’s Flaming Carrot Comics. It’s the only feature by commercial director Kinka Usher. Despite an aggressive marketing campaign, it opened in sixth place, beneath other debuts THE SIXTH SENSE and THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, as well as holdovers THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, RUNAWAY BRIDE and DEEP BLUE SEA. It did do better than THE IRON GIANT and DICK, also released that week.
It ended up grossing less than half its $68 million budget.
That’s pretty expensive for a comedy, and they tried to turn this into a thing. There was a two-part movie adaptation published by Dark Horse Comics. And there were action figures from a company called Playing Mantis. By this time, thanks to the influence of SPAWN creator Todd McFarlane, these were starting to be made specifically for grown collectors rather than kids. But not every movie had action figures, and MYSTERY MEN did.
And check out this art that I found on promotional pins and t-shirts. I’m not sure if they made actual posters of these, but they seem like direct descendants of the CONEHEADS posters, which I felt evolved out of the DICK TRACY and BATMAN posters. They’re still going for an iconic silhouette type of thing but, as with CONEHEADS, the emphasis is on the eye-catching background colors. Kind of a pop art look.
And just like the Schumacher movies this had a soundtrack with a random jumble of bands, in this case including Dub Pistols, Jill Sobule and Violent Femmes. “All Star” by Smash Mouth plays as soon as the end credits start. I don’t think it brought me such pain at the time but now I heard the fuckin thing from watching the movie and it’s been harassing my brain for days. Fuck you, “All Star.” Leave me alone.
According to my research, the song came out a couple months before the movie and its soundtrack, but the video (directed by McG) opens with footage from the scene where they audition the different bad super heroes. And the Smash Mouth guy rescues a dog from a fire I guess to be a super hero or whatever. And they kind of pretend that they are in different clips from the movie. At the end there are some lookalikes that you see only from the back. I would embed it for you to study but I don’t know how to set it on mute.
The song “Sometimes” by Michael Franti & Spearhead is also on the end credits. That seems pretty random, but then, so does this movie.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.