At least the studio hired enough likable scene-stealing actors and comedians to carry the bloated carcass of this film over the course of two hours. Reportedly, much of the dead weight is the responsibility of first time director Kinka Usher, the director behind the Budweiser frogs and the dog from Taco Bell. Too bad he couldn’t have learned how to direct in increments longer than thirty seconds.
Based loosely (VERY loosely) on the original comic book by Bob Burden, we enter Champion City, a sprawling CGI metropolis under the protection of its beloved super-hero, Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear). He’s done his job well. Too well, as the Captain has begun to lose corporate sponsors as there are no real super-villains left in the city. Amazing secretly aids the parole of his old arch-nemesis, Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush), who’s spent the last twenty years in an asylum. The Captain failed to realize that Frankenstein spent that twenty years plotting revenge, so the hero is soon held captive in the villain’s mansion.
Who can protect Champion City? The only ones left are a band of loser blue-collar heroes: Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), the Shoveler (William H. Macy), and the Blue Raja (Hank Azaria). The incompetent three, usually a greater danger to themselves, know they’ll need help to rescue Capt. Amazing. They soon enlist The Spleen (Paul Reubens), Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell), and the Bowler (Janeane Garofalo). Then they enlist the Sphinx (Wes Studi). Then they enlist mad scientist, Dr. Heller (Tom Waits). After that, they can’t really fit anyone else in the car. Way over-produced hilarity ensues.
Was it really necessary to spend this much money on this film? My understanding is it was Usher’s idea to make the film “Batman”-big. Luckily, this flick was meant to be a comedy because it’s also “Batman”-silly. Part of the problem is the result of the cast required for the eight million or so speaking parts, but if everything else is oversized, why not the cast? Most of the rest of the issue relate to the studios’ idea of what a “superhero” movie is, and what it actually requires. The problems are more pronounced as the source material is actually a satire of the conventions of superhero comics, not something with which a mass-audience can be expected to have familiarity.
Between the large amount of action and a total of seven main heroes, there isn’t much time to establish character and motivation. Much of Invisible Boy’s setup appears to have hit the cutting room floor, as we don’t even know how the original group found him. They just show up on his doorstep. There’s no clear motivation for Frankenstein’s action beyond simple revenge. “He’s evil”, is about all we get.
It’s difficult to establish the Mystery Men as blue-collar heroes when they seem to live on unused sets from Tim Burton movies. If the movie had been shot on location in say,… Detroit, it would have helped, and been funnier for the contract of their costumes to the real world, instead of the giant, flashing disco designed to attract 10-year-olds with Attention Deficit Disorder. The only film ever to really attempt this sort of thing was “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai”, but that film never made any money, so that idea’s out.
I’m thinking Usher believes that a script is only a loose framework to employ his fancy photography. The camera never stops moving but the dialogue often stays where it falls, and not even this cast can bring it to life. Stiller, with the most screen time, seems most in the lurch. There’s little time to contribute to his waitress/love interest (Claire Forlani), so the relationship advances with all the aplomb of a coffee commercial.
Does the movie suck? No, if one thing didn’t work too well, something else will come alone in no more than 30 seconds. Stiller, Macy, and Garofalo are a joy to watch. It would have been nice if Eddie Izzard, as Frankenstein’s disco henchman, had been given more to do than wear leftover costumes from “Velvet Goldmine”, but he has some lines which is better than what he got in the “Avengers”. He’ll never catch on in America at this rate, though. Sequels will be a tough bet unless the studios learn to grab our interest instead of just our attention.