Directed by Kinka Usher

Aug 4, 1999 at 4:00 am
In the highly competitive, dog-eat-dog world of the modern-day superhero, the members of the group that eventually becomes known as the Mystery Men — they don't really have a name through most of the movie — start out with a couple of strikes against them.

First off, there's the little matter of superpowers: They don't have 'em. Or let's say that the status of their powers as super, as compared to someone like, say, Superman, who can fly, has X-ray vision and can bounce bullets off his chest, are at best a little iffy.

Take Eddie, a.k.a. the Shoveler (William H. Macy). Eddie can shovel up a storm, but as his loving wife keeps telling him, being a good shoveler doesn't necessarily make you a superhero. Then there's the Blue Raja (Hank Azaria), whose real name is Jeffrey and who still lives at home with his mother. Granted, Jeffrey can toss cutlery with near-unrivaled ability and do a ripping impersonation of an upper-crust Brit. However, very few of your contemporary evil geniuses can be brought down by a well-thrown salad fork. (Jeffrey eschews the throwing of knives on the grounds that they are too obvious.)

This brings us to Mr. Furious, the last of the core group, whose name in the real world is Roy and who possesses the ability to become very, very angry. Enraged, one might say. Pissed. You look at Mr. Furious the wrong way, and he will go thermonuclear on your ass. In the abstract, this may seem intimidating, but after people learn that Mr. Furious' powers are largely rhetorical — that is, he possesses neither superstrength nor superspeed nor any other tiny superthing out of the ordinary — they have a tendency to beat the utter crap out of him.

In fact, this is pretty much what occurs whenever our heroes have the misfortune to run across a crime in progress. Fortunately, they don't often run across much in the way of wrongdoing. Thanks to the efforts of Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear) — who, it happens, is a genuine, bona fide superhero — Champion City, where the movie is set, is nearly 100 percent devoid of crime of any sort. This is beginning to pose quite a problem for the frustrated Captain. Sure, he has received his due for ridding the metropolis of such fiendish masters of crime as Apocalyptica and Casanova Frankenstein, enabling him to secure endorsement deals with most of Champion City's leading companies. (His uniform is covered, race-car-driver-style, with corporate patches.) But with most of the big-name bad guys behind bars, Amazing's name isn't in the newspaper so much anymore, causing a few of his sponsors to withdraw their endorsements.

If he's anything, Kinnear's hilariously vain do-gooder is a man of action. Rather than wait around until he loses one of his really big endorsements, he whips up a plan to arrange for his archnemesis, Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush), to be released from the nuthouse in order to bring about a mano a mano guaranteed to generate the banner headlines Captain Amazing's sagging career needs.

If all of this strikes you as too clever by half, it's not, mainly because of the easygoing skills of the performers. Director Kinka Usher doesn't ask his actors to send up their roles but to play it straight — to present their innocent desire to do good with utter sincerity so that their squareness begins to look like the ultimate form of hip. The result is that the movie seems almost loving toward its characters, so much so that we can't help but fall for this gang of losers.

While Captain Amazing is busy setting up his plot, our merry band of underachievers decide to hold auditions to see whether they can bolster the group with so-much-needed fresh blood. Almost immediately, a promising recruit steps forward. Played by Paul Reubens, with a face full of suppurating zits, the crime fighter's name is the Spleen, and his power, if you will, is that he is capable of manufacturing within himself stink bombs so lethally putrid as to incapacitate anyone within breathing range. There is something so genuinely, perversely creepy about the expression on his face when he fires one off that you just can't help but fall in love with him. You could say that he had a certain Pepe Le Pew quality, but no mere cartoon was ever so ... unclean.

Thankfully, we have Janeane Garofalo on hand to distract us. From the instant she shows up as the Bowler, carrying a bowling bag containing a ball with the skull of her dead father inside, the movie becomes infinitely more delicious. Her father was known as Carmine the Bowler, and although she herself has no actual skill to speak of, Carmine apparently still has enough power to make his old ball a considerable threat. The best part of the Bowler's character, though, is that she continues to be in touch with her father, even though he is deceased. Even in scenes where she is upstaged by the ball, she continues to effortlessly steal the picture right out from under everyone else. (And, of course, it would also be nice to know what she might do with a really first-rate script.)

Garofalo is partnered well with Ben Stiller, whom many people tend to loathe but who possesses a deft sense of comic timing. (Look at him in Zero Effect.) Macy is his usual consistent self, and it is fun watching Kinnear reveal the superior, self-serving prick hidden within every superhero utterance. Still, the funniest moment in the picture belongs to Azaria when he explains why his superhero character's name is the Blue Raja, despite the fact that his superhero costume contains not even the slightest trace of blue. That moment — and the one where the heroes come together in a huddle and break with a rowdy Sei gesund — take us instantly to comedy nirvana.

The only real disappointments in the cast are Rush, who is not only miscast but who also seems to be trying to play Frankenstein as if he were Alan Rickman — which, unfortunately, he is not — and Claire Forlani, who hasn't yet snapped out of the trance she fell into while starring opposite Brad Pitt as Death in Meet Joe Black.

Usher comes to feature filmmaking from commercials and doesn't much express himself one way or the other throughout the film. What he does especially well is stay out of the way of his actors. He also hasn't allowed the guys in charge of special effects to take over. As a result, the picture remains a comedy and not a pageant of effects with jokes sprinkled over.

Opens Aug. 6.