Mystery Men (1999)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #65

They’re not your average superheroes.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 120 minutes
BBFC: PG (uncut, 1999) | PG (cut on video, 2000)
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 6th August 1999
UK Release: 26th December 1999
First Seen: DVD, c.2000

Stars
Ben Stiller (There’s Something About Mary, Night at the Museum)
Hank Azaria (Grosse Pointe Blank, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian)
William H. Macy (Fargo, Magnolia)
Geoffrey Rush (Shine, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)

Director
Kinka Usher

Screenwriter
Neil Cuthbert (Hocus Pocus, The Adventures of Pluto Nash)

Based on
The Mysterymen, a superhero team originally appearing in Flaming Carrot Comics, a comic book by Bob Burden.

The Story
When supervillain Casanova Frankenstein is released from prison, wannabe superhero Mr Furious overhears his plan to destroy reality. With the city’s genuine protector out of action, Mr Furious and his chums the Shoveler and the Blue Raja recruit a gang of other wannabes to defeat Frankenstein.

Our Heroes
They’re not your classic heroes, they’re the other guys: a ragtag gaggle of people with “powers”, like the Shoveler, who fights with a shovel, or Mr. Furious, who gets really angry, or the Blue Raja, who throws cutlery with great accuracy. These founding three are joined by Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell), the Spleen (Paul Reubens), and the Bowler (Janeane Garofalo), and recruit the mysterious Sphinx (Wes Studi) to train them.

Our Villain
Criminally insane genius Casanova Frankenstein. Released from prison so that genuine superhero Captain Amazing had someone to fight, Frankenstein manages to capture his nemesis and plots to unleash the reality-bending Psycho-frakulator on the world — with only our inept heroes to stand in his way.

Best Supporting Character
Captain Amazing! Played by Greg Kinnear, the resident superhero of Champion City is too darn good at his job. With no crime left to fight, his corporate sponsors are pulling their funding — unless he can use his alter ego, influential billionaire Lance Hunt, to get one of his adversaries released…

Memorable Quote
The Shoveler: “If we had a billionaire like Lance Hunt as our benefactor…”
Mr. Furious: “That’s because Lance Hunt is Captain Amazing!”
The Shoveler: “Oh, here we go… Don’t start that again. Lance Hunt wears glasses, Captain Amazing doesn’t wear glasses.”
Mr. Furious: “He takes them off when he transforms.”
The Shoveler: “That doesn’t make any sense, he wouldn’t be able to see!”

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“We are number one. All others are number two, or lower.” — The Sphinx

Memorable Scene
Mr Furious, the Blue Raja, and the Shoveler gather at the latter’s house (despite his wife’s protestations) to audition potential team members. Cue a stream of daft and/or outrageous ideas for superheroes, including the Reverse Psychologist, Squeegeeman, and PMS Avenger.

Making of
For some reason a rumour has persistently done the rounds that Mystery Men was actually directed by Tim Burton, and Kinka Usher was just an alias. Goodness knows why. Usher is in fact a commercials director, and went back to that world after his miserable experience here.

Awards
1 Saturn nomination (Costumes)
1 Teen Choice Awards nomination (Choice Hissy Fit — it lost to Hanging Up. If you have any idea what Hanging Up is, your memory’s better than mine.)

What the Critics Said
“This slapstick and effects vehicle depends on poker-faced performances, production design that enhances the story partly because it doesn’t have to compensate for it, and a premise that provides seemingly inexhaustible opportunities for pratfalls and clever lines. The characters have been designed to make fun of themselves, disguising the craft of writer Neil Cuthbert and director Kinka Usher in getting us to laugh at them.” — Lisa Alspector, Chicago Reader

Score: 60%

What the Public Say
“this movie is incredibly underrated because it parodies other Superhero movies unbelievably well, and no one had the chance to see that 15 years ago. […] It does what any good parody does, by taking the expected and turning it on its head. How do other Superhero groups form? The government decides it’s a good idea to have a Supergroup. Or they all meet in some intergalactic prison. Or they form to protect the world from the Legion of Doom. None of them hold a barbecue. None of them have a female team member who kicks ass, speaks her mind, angers everyone, and wears real clothing. The movie takes every expected and turns it on its ass […] I believe if it came out this summer, or even in the fall, it would have a much bigger and better reaction. People would watch it and instinctively compare it to the other Superhero super groups they’re familiar with. It would resonate better now, and fans would have a chance to really laugh at the ridiculousness of Superheroes.” — Maria Spiridigliozzi

Verdict

Was Mystery Men ahead of its time? Coming out in 1999, it was a year ahead of the superhero revival that X-Men kickstarted. Or maybe it was behind its time? Visually, it’s on a par with other ’90s superhero efforts like Batman Forever (and I don’t mean that derogatorily). Either way, it’s an undervalued comedy. The ensemble cast are all perfect — I didn’t even have room above to mention Tom Waits as mad inventor Dr A. Heller, Eddie Izzard as henchman Tony P., or Claire Forlani as the love interest. The material they have to deliver is both witty and suitably silly, and it incorporates superhero tropes and references without relying on them. In the sub-subgenre of superhero comedies, all others are number two, or lower.

#66 never happened… to the other fella.

Machete (2010)

2014 #114
Robert Rodriguez & Ethan Maniquis | 100 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English & Spanish | 18 / R

MacheteMulti-hyphenate Robert Rodriguez takes his Grindhouse fake trailer and expands it into an all-star “Mexploitation” actioner, with mixed results.

When it’s on its game, Machete is the best kind of spoof: innovative, comical, and as thrilling as the cream of the genre it’s targeting. Moments that achieve this are liberally scattered throughout, and to cite them would be to spoil them.

Unfortunately it’s far too long, with an overabundance of characters and conflicts dragging things out. A serious prune could have made this sharp, quick and fun, rather than a mix of highly enjoyable sections with dull longueurs.

The cast at least seem to be having fun, and are certainly in on the joke. Jessica Alba was nominated for a Razzie, which shows someone completely missed the point — she’s actually pretty good here. The number of “goofs” listed on IMDb suggest plenty of other people didn’t get it either, mind. I suppose any kind of comedy is an acquired taste.

Part of that joke is to be OTT, but sometimes the film goes too far, trying to be crazily fun but instead ending up overcooked. It’s also clear that bits from the fake trailer have been joylessly shoehorned in. It seems fitting for the genre to shoehorn in “cool stuff” that doesn’t make much narrative sense, but occasionally Rodriguez seems to be jumping through hoops Let's hope it's not a gun fightto fleetingly include something that ‘needs’ to be there purely because it was in that trailer.

Machete has enough entertaining moments to ensure enjoyment for many; as to how much the thumb-twidding filler mars the experience, your mileage may vary. For me, it stood in the way a bit too much.

2 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

Fatal Instinct (1993)

2009 #86
Carl Reiner | 90 mins | download | 15 / PG-13

Fatal InstinctHaving just recently laid into High Anxiety, a spoof in a broadly similar style that also took on thrillers, it seems a little hypocritical to praise this, which flopped so badly in the US it went straight to video over here. Unfortunately, life isn’t that simple, and where Mel Brooks’ effort failed to amuse me this succeeded.

The plot, such as it is, doesn’t bear much discussion, being a loose amalgamation of half a dozen other films in the name of spoofery. So too the performances — no one distinguishes themselves as a comedic genius, but none let the side down. Reiner’s direction is equally fine, setting up and paying off the visual, verbal and aural jokes perfectly well. He drops the ball in a couple of instances however, allowing several jokes to run on well past their natural conclusion, and indulging in a few well-worn staples of the genre — the on-screen-musicians-playing-the-score turn up, for example, although at least there’s a nice variation at one point involving a tape player.

It’s a little difficult to understand exactly why it flopped so badly in the US as it followed in the wake of the similarly-styled Hot Shots!, which was successful enough to spawn a sequel. But then perhaps exactly that hindered it — Fatal Instinct’s release came just a few months after Hot Shots! Part Deux.

Or perhaps its targets were just too broad to attract a mass audience. While it ostensibly tackles then-recent thrillers like Basic Instinct, Cape Fear and Fatal Attraction (though the latter was already six years old at this point), it also has a lot of time devoted to the tropes of film noir, in particular Double Indemnity. Relying so heavily on a 50-year-old film isn’t likely to earn you much favour among the masses.

I’ve not seen any of those ’80s/’90s thrillers it targets, but Fatal Instinct seems to stick to the most famous bits, making the references easy to appreciate even for those with just a passing knowledge. Conversely, it seemed to me that having seen Double Indemnity would be a major advantage. But then again, perhaps that’s simply because I spotted the references to it and missed references to the films I hadn’t seen without, er, missing them, and anyone who hadn’t seen Double Indemnity would survive in much the same way. At the very least I’m sure it’s easier to follow than this paragraph…

Fatal Instinct may not be terribly original in and of itself — though, obviously, the films it chooses to spoof set it apart from its kin — and some of the gags are very much old hat (a roving camera bumps into something and breaks the lens, for instance), while others go on too long — as does the film itself, actually — but anyone who enjoyed all the films mentioned in this review may find it’s capable of raising a few smiles.

3 out of 5

High Anxiety (1977)

2009 #65
Mel Brooks | 94 mins | TV | 15 / PG

High AnxietyMel Brooks pays comedic tribute to Alfred Hitchcock — in case you can’t tell, the second credit is a prominent dedication — but those unfamiliar with the Master of Suspense’s output need not apply.

Brooks presents a largely Hitchcockian plot, though the clearest references come in a couple of sketches and one-liners. To be fair, there are several significant Hitchcock films I’ve still not seen, leaving the nagging sensation that some allusions and gags simply passed me by. On the other hand, maybe they just weren’t funny — I can’t remember many laughs that didn’t spring from a Hitchcock reference of some kind.

Indeed, whole chunks pass by without a laugh. At other times, bits that are clearly meant to be funny just don’t hit home (though I’m aware that, inevitably, they will for some people), while some gags are almost reassuringly familiar: a dramatic piece of music kicks in, causing characters to look around until they see a band in full swing has appeared nearby, for just one example.

Things pick up considerably in the second half, which is also more obviously Hitchcockian to my mind. Some scenes offer very good, though specific, riffs on famous Hitchcock moments — a version of Psycho’s shower scene is particularly memorable, though a scatological take on The Birds will please some — but these are almost exclusively asides to the story, little sketches inserted wherever Brooks can find space to squeeze them in. They provide welcome amusement, but are far from integrated into the plot.

At this point I’m beginning to suspect Brooks’ humour just doesn’t gel with me. I enjoyed Spaceballs when I was younger, but watching it a couple of years ago I found it more embarrassing than entertaining. Even the widely praised Blazing Saddles raised little more than the occasional smile. High Anxiety, unfortunately, now joins this line-up.

2 out of 5

Superhero Movie (2008)

2008 #52
Craig Mazin | 85 mins | in-flight | 12A / PG-13

Superhero MovieYears ago, I saw Scary Movie. I don’t really know what I thought of it anymore, but I never expected I’d find myself watching another entry in the critically-derided …Movie series. But then I found myself on a plane, half asleep and with a choice of films I’d mostly rather watch on a decent-sized screen, and decided that maybe Superhero Movie wouldn’t be so bad after all…

As anyone who saw a trailer will have guessed, Superhero Movie is mainly a spoof of Spider-Man… a film that is now six years old. Unfortunately, this means that most of the best jokes have already been done in numerous other sketch-length spoofs, amongst them one at the MTV Movie Awards and one during Comic Relief 2005. The latter even did the green costume thing, though the hero was ‘Spider-Plant Man’ rather than the (less funny) Dragonfly employed here. Superhero Movie takes all this sketchery to the next level, however, crafting its story simply by reworking the first Spider-Man film almost scene by scene, inserting jokes (and, more often, ‘jokes’) where it can — which is about once per scene.

There are also asides that spoof X-Men, Fantastic Four and Batman, but they barely warrant a mention. They’re certainly not any funnier. In fact, the climax is the only wholly original plot point — or, at least, plot point not directly lifted from Spider-Man, as it may well come from some other comic source. This incessant copying makes the film feel like an over-extended sketch, and so it becomes clear that something like Mystery Men, with its genuinely original plot, makes for a much better superhero comedy movie.

As for the gags themselves, they’re childish, lewd, offensive (“isn’t Stephen Hawking funny!”), too specific to American culture, too topical (they’ll be dated within six months), already dated (“isn’t the Windows paperclip annoying!”), too obvious… It’s very much a movie made for now, not for posterity. Actually, to be fair, it’s very much a movie made for six years ago. In this respect I suppose it’s just like the rest of the …Movie series, which I’ve always felt looked like cheap TV specials owing to their specificity and, well, rubbishness. Still, believe it or not, some bits are actually amusing. Or amusing enough while they’re on. Perhaps I was just laughing out of desperation. I certainly can’t remember any of the jokes now.

Intriguingly (a word I use loosely here), there are a bunch of deleted scenes and gags during the end credits — not bloopers, but genuine deleted bits. It’s a mystery as to why these aren’t either in the film itself or relegated to DVD extras — it’s not like running time is an issue, and clearly pacing isn’t. In fact, some of the deletions are much funnier than gags that were left in. They’re probably the only reason to keep watching Superhero Movie to the end, though they’re not reason enough to start it in the first place.

2 out of 5

Superhero Movie featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2008, which can be read in full here.

Churchill: The Hollywood Years (2004)

2008 #4
Peter Richardson | 84 mins | TV | 15

Churchill: The Hollywood YearsWhat if the Americans made a movie of Winston Churchill’s life, prone as they are to re-write World War 2 history to show they won it all by themselves?

This is ostensibly the premise of this spoof from some of the team behind Channel 4’s The Comic Strip. I say ostensibly, because the film is bookended (for padding, I suspect) with scenes that suggest that the real Churchill was an American GI, and the British simply re-wrote history using a somewhat chubby actor called Roy Bubbles. Sadly, the joke was funnier when it was riffing on those US historical re-writes.

The problem with killing that joke is, it’s the best one the film’s got. It’s also just about suitable for a five-minute comedy sketch, or, at a stretch, a series of sketches. The strategy for drawing this out to movie-length seems to have involved those bookends, as well as bunging some outtakes at the end and including a bunch of ridiculous, irritating, and unfunny subplots with Hitler and his entourage. It’s a shame to see the talents of actors such as Antony Sher and Miranda Richardson frittered away on such material.

This is all being a tad harsh, because Churchill actually has its fair share of amusing moments. The supporting cast of British TV comedians are mostly very good, Neve Campbell’s posh English accent (usually such a stumbling block for Americans-as-Brits) is as good as anything a British actress could have delivered, and Christian Slater and Romany Malco make for a likeable pairing. But, again, most of the best bits are of sketch length, and so wind up spread out among the padding.

In that respect it’s quite a shame, because there’s a good idea, good potential, and some good laughs in here.

2 out of 5