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IN SHORT: Inferior Five via Not Brand Ecch! [Rated [PG-13], 100 minutes]
If it isn't obvious from the X-Men Movie updates on the homepage, Cranky is deeply into comic books. The creative team behind Mystery Men, from Bob Burden (who created the team as part of his Flaming Carrot book) to the folks at Dark Horse (who have a better track record with bringing comics to the bigscreen, and vice versa, than any of the Big Three) have peppered this flick with lots of in-jokes that will be readily apparent to any fanboy. That being said, no knowledge of comic history is necessary to enjoy the world of Champion City and its defender, Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear).
The Captain has done such a good job protecting his city that the only bad guys left are bands of two bit villains who steal dentures out of the mouths of retirees. Crime is down, as are revenues from products like Pepsi and Mighty White Toothpaste, whose logos make the Captain's uniform look like a stock car race driver's gear. Only the return of an evil villain, like the scurrilous Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush) can improve the bottom line so, with the aid of bespeckled billionaire Lance Hunt (who looks remarkably like Greg Kinnear <g>), the Captain engineers the parole of his arch enemy and prepares for the epic battle that will mark the Millenium. The Captain, it must be said, is quite full of himself. That means Champion City will soon be without a champion.
If the villains of Champion City are two bit, the remaining superheroes are even less. There's Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller) possessed of an anger and rage that makes him, um, angry. There's The Blue Raja (Hank Azaria), an effeminate British accented goodguy whose deadly aim with forks and spoons (no knives -- knives are dangerous and could hurt someone) is less than deadly. He's not really effeminate, by the way, its just part of his superhero act. Last up is The Shoveler (William H. Macy) who wears a catcher's chest protector and has a shovel.
Champion City is in deep trouble.
Turning the superhero genre on its ear yields a flick that is, thematically, visually and aurally delightful. Virtually all of the heroes are emotional misfits, Mr. Furious and the Blue Raja both have problems with their moms. The Shoveler has a wife and two kids to support (and Mrs. Shoveler has had just about enough). As in the comics, to save the day, a super-team of heroes must be built. That means open auditions, held in the backyard of The Shoveler's house. What a motley group ...
The remaining superheroes, all third string, include The Bowler (Janeane Garafalo) whose bowling ball contains her dad's skull; The Spleen (Paul Reubens), whose silent but deadly power yields the funniest fart joke of the summer; Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell) whose invisibility power works only if no one is looking at him; and the mysterious The Sphinx (Wes Studi), whose telekinetic power split guns in two with and who trains our team of misfits with instructional dialog that would have been at home amidst the gobbledygook heard in The Matrix. In this case, it's supposed to be funny. Rounding off the cast is Tom Waits as the good guy weapons designer whose guns won't kill; Eddie Izzard (currently star of an HBO comedy special) and Fugee music star Pras as the murderous bad guys, the Disco Boys. You know they're bad -- they use guns.
To make comic heroes work, you've got to play 'em straight and you've got to make it all look spectacular. The production design of Champion City is breathtaking. The high tech talk coming out of the mouths of the heroes (neuro-laser-hossenpfeffer-chopper indeed) is dead on loving parody of comic book excess. As for our heroes, William H. Macy is the center of the team, a DC-style man in a Marvel-style group wracked by self-doubt. Janeane Garofalo, above all the rest, nails the schizophrenic identity shtick that accompanies the super-life. Basically, she still discusses her actions with her dad. See it and believe it.
Mystery Men gently pokes fun at Superman, Batman, the X-Men and at least one teevee SF superhero (telling would spoil the surprise) and is definitely one for us boys. On the downside, this is a popcorn flick that may be too clever for its own good. There's not enough in it to keep you glued to your seats -- Cranky's gut feeling is that Frankenstein just isn't bad enough -- ducking out in the middle won't mean you'll anything vital but, c'mon folks, this kind of cast in this kind of flick is just too tempting to avoid.
Parents to whose kids Kel Mitchell is a superstar (from Nickelodeon's Kenan and Kel series) will find no reason to keep their kids away from the flick, though some of the superhero dialog shtick may confuse 'em.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Mystery Men, he would have paid...
Dateflick level. Mystery Men is terrific eye candy and a fine popcorn movie if you've got a little boy child locked away inside. There's nothing here that wouldn't work fine on the little screen, which should mean a lower rating on the Cranky scale, but it's summertime and lite is good.
Cast members William H. Macy, Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, Geoffrey Rush, Kel Mitchell and Paul Reubens (formerly known as Pee Wee Herman) all reveal that they know diddle about comic books in Cranky Critic® StarTalk. A good time was had by all.
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