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MYSTERY MEN

by: Scott Renshaw

Of all the reasons to be frustrated by a film, I'll take the one MYSTERY MEN provides: it's just too clever and original for its own damned good. The super-hero action film has become such a predictable package of action sequences, limp quips and bland characterizations that it was screaming for a satirical treament. To fill this need, along comes MYSTERY MEN, spinning out a dozen different ways to turn the genre on its ear...which turns out to be at least a half-dozen too many. As busily directed by television commercial auteur Kinka Usher, MYSTERY MEN rarely sits still long enough for any one of its sharp ideas to turn into inspired comedy.

The concept, based on characters appearing in Dark Horse comics, offers plenty of potential. In Champion City, a teeming BLADE RUNNER-esque metropolis, we meet three would-be warriors for justice: Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), The Shoveler (William H. Macy) and the fork-wielding Blue Raja (Hank Azaria). Unfortunately, the trio is way down in the super-hero pecking order from the dashing Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear), and even Captain Amazing can't find a good fight because he's dispatched evil-doers so efficiently. When Captain Amazing engineers the release of arch-villain Cassanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush) from a mental institution, he finds himself unexpectedly captured by his nemesis. With Captain Amazing out of commission, it's left to Mr. Furious and his crew to bring together a team of heroes with more ambition than super-fire-power, including The Bowler (Janeane Garofolo), master of flatulence The Spleen (Paul Reubens), Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell) and the "terribly mysterious" Sphinx (Wes Studi).

MYSTERY MEN works best from the outset by turning its super-heroes into analogs for contemporary athletes. Career minor-leaguers like The Shoveler, a married suburban father of three, wonder whether they'll get a shot at the big time; Captain Amazing and his publicist (Ricky Jay) find themselves generally more preoccupied with maintaining corporate sponsorship deals than with crime-fighting. The simple moments in which the heroes-in-waiting cope with workaday life are sparked by the wonderfully off-beat cast -- Azaria's Blue Raja as a mama's boy who practices his witty one-liners in his room; Stiller's Mr. Furious trying to strike the right super-hero image to impress a diner waitress (Claire Forlani). Every so often, MYSTERY MEN nails the absurdity of its premise so well that the comedy is blissfully perfect.

It's just not often enough. As the film winds its way through two hours, its comic highlights are nearly matched by the unexplored sub-plots. Lost in the shuffle of too many characters are the team's two over-eager tag-alongs, the geeky Spleen and earnest Invisible Boy (whose "powers" may be nothing more than a major case of teenage existential angst). Neil Cuthbert's script spends too much time on The Sphinx's initially amusing Yoda-like training, and too little on Kinnear's splendidly smug Captain Amazing. Rush's Cassanova Frankenstein hardly gets a moment to develop a distinct personality, treating his Teutonic accent as sufficient evidence of his villainy. And director Usher takes the swooping full-screen close-ups from his Taco Bell chihuahua and "Got Milk?" ads, and uses them to distracting excess. MYSTERY MEN wants to make every possible gag about super-heroes in one film, but it's off on the next set-up before you get a chance to appreciate the last punch line.

Thankfully, there are just enough quirky pleasures in MYSTERY MEN to counteract its hyperactivity. Some bits of dialogue are priceless, including The Shoveler's stubborn insistence that millionaire Lance Hunt couldn't be Captain Amazing's alter-ego ("Lance Hunt wears glasses, Captain Amazing doesn't"). The team's first joint assault on Cassanova's limo is a goofy low-tech triumph over the bad guys, followed by a round of d

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