Intensely ridiculous

How Mr. Furious and his cohorts will steal your heart.

BLOCKBUSTER FILMS OFTEN use one-liners as a decorative border for blood-letting and car chases. But how many blockbusters are truly, deeply funny? A hint: less than the number of Lethal Weapon sequels.

Mystery Men

directed by Kinka Usher

starring Greg Kinnear, Ben Stiller, Geoffrey Rush

opens August 6 at Pacific Place and others

So if you’re looking for someone to direct an action/fantasy in which the point isn’t really action or fantasy but comedy, all the Wolfgang Petersons and Renny Harlins of the world aren’t going to be much help. A TV-commercial director, on the other hand, might be just the ticket, since most current advertising relies heavily on humor. Perhaps this is why Dark Horse Comics founder Mike Richardson and his colleagues chose Kinka Usher for Mystery Men. Usher proves himself worthy of more than just Taco Bell Chihuahua spots on his first feature film, a superhero spoof that requires massive directorial juggling.

The director also gets a chance to bite the hand that fed him; Mystery Men‘s smarmy “true” superhero, Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear), hawks Whitey Brighty toothpaste on TV and wears a jumpsuit plastered with endorsement logos—Pepsi, Jiffy Lube, Reebok, Ray-O-Vac. Meanwhile, the film’s real heroes, a trio of down-at-the-heels, super-power-challenged superheroes, can barely afford a hamburger, let alone a publicist.

TV commercials aren’t larded with plot, and that’s another reason why Usher is such a good choice for Mystery Men. He sets up the premise quickly, then lets the visuals and jokes take over.

The setting is sometime in the near future in Champion City, a teeming, multilingual Gotham complexly imagined by production designer Kirk M. Petruccelli (the guy who kept Blade from being an utter write-off). The film opens at a nursing home tea dance as an evil gang busts in to mug the elderly residents. A not-quite-heroic trio arrives to save the day: Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller) works himself into Incredible Hulk-like rages that result in lots of fist-shaking and not much else; the Shoveler (William Macy) concentrates on shoveling “really well”; and the Blue Raja (Hank Azaria) faces foes with an armory of assorted cutlery. These superheroes’ rather lackluster talents leave them bleeding and battered before Captain Amazing comes to the rescue.

Amazing has earned his arrogance. He’s good at fighting crime—so good, in fact, that he’s made himself obsolete. Since he’s cleaned up Champion City, he’s got nothing to do, no supervillains to thwart; he’s in danger of losing those lucrative endorsements. When his archnemesis, Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush), comes up for parole, Captain Amazing stands up for the supposedly rehabilitated psycho. Of course, Casanova’s as diabolical as ever, and when he’s set free he launches a plan to destroy Champion City. He begins by taking Captain Amazing hostage.

THE EVER-VIGILANT Mr. Furious and Co. see rescuing the sellout superhero as a chance to make their name, but first they must recruit new members for their crime-fighting team. They wind up with Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell), who’s only invisible when no one—including himself—is looking; the Spleen (Paul Reubens), a repulsive, pimply guy with a formidable gastrointestinal weapon; and the Bowler (Janeane Garofalo), who’s out to avenge the death of her father at the hands of Casanova’s cohorts, the Disco Boys (Eddie Izzard and Pras of the Fugees).

There are many “names” in Mystery Men (there’s not enough room here to explain what Lena Olin, Claire Forlani, and Tom Waits are doing in the film, let alone Goodie Mob), but Usher never loses the actors amid the blockbuster production values. He creates the illusion of a completely separate world, and even those characters that are briefly sketched work toward the film’s goofy, Saturday morning-cartoon atmosphere. Subverting the superhero archetype doesn’t require much depth, but it does require a light touch.

If Mystery Men‘s script could be said to have a focal character, it’s Mr. Furious. Stiller is perfect for this role—he can look both intense and ridiculous at the same time, a potent comedic weapon. He may not have much experience with TV commercials, but he’s funny nonetheless.