No mystery, just good fun

August 06, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

A lively satirical take on superheroes from "Batman" to "The Terminator," "Mystery Men" zips along like a live-action comic book, so full of sarcasm and in-joke humor that its inherent sweetness is easy to miss.

The story of a bunch of bumbling wannabes who set out to save their home town, the film is an amusing, often hilarious paean to every Citizen Joe who ever dreamed of lifting a bus to save a child or stopping a crime with just a withering remark.

"Mystery Men," which is based on a group of characters from the "Flaming Carrot" comic book series created by Bob Burden, opens in Champion City, where a nursing home is being attacked by a gang of marauders. A group of junior varsity heroes immediately jumps in: The Blue Raja (Hank Azaria), whose specialty is throwing forks, manages to spear the Shoveler (William H. Macy), who manages to bean Furious (Ben Stiller) with his weapon of choice.

Luckily, the town's real superhero, Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear), is on hand. Decked out in a NASCAR-style jump suit emblazoned with sponsor patches, the glib Amazing makes quick work of the villains, only to complain later that crime fighting just isn't what it used to be. He needs big crimes to fight, to keep those endorsement dollars flowing.

Captain Amazing hits on a plan to release his arch-enemy Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush) from a hospital for the criminally insane, but his plans are foiled when Frankenstein manages to kidnap him. Blue Raja, the Shoveler and Furious -- who only manages to sputter put-downs like "pencil-head" and "ballerina-man" in his attempts to be frightening -- assemble a team of fellow also-rans to rescue Amazing: the Spleen (Paul Reubens), who wields flatulence like a noxious sword; the Bowler (Janeane Garofalo), whose bowling ball possesses supernatural powers; Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell), who can make himself disappear when nobody's watching; and the Sphinx (Wes Studi), a New Agey shaman who brings Furious to the boil with his tautological aphorisms.

"Mystery Men," which has been directed with wit, imagination and assurance by commercial director Kinka Usher, rollicks along with good-natured glee, and the rapid-fire jokes will delight fans of the cartoon-inspired action movies, most of which are sent up with poker-faced earnestness here.

Usher also has assembled the perfect cast for this exercise in deadpan hilarity, right down to supporting appearances by Ricky Jay and Tom Waits. Watching Waits, as an arms dealer, recite a list of unlikely sounding weapons while holding a chicken is alone worth the price of admission to this hip, fun-loving comedy.

`Mystery Men'

Starring Hank Azaria, Janeane Garofalo, Greg Kinnear, William H. Macy, Kel Mitchell, Paul Reubens, Geoffrey Rush, Ben Stiller

Directed by Kinka Usher

Released by Universal Pictures

Rated PG-13 (comic action violence and crude humor)

Running time: 114 minutes

Sun score: ***

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