With the extraordinary popularity of big screen comic book adaptations in recent years (and with 'Heroes' one of the biggest hits of the 2006-2007 television season), is it time for a reappraisal of 'Mystery Men'? Almost completely overlooked during its original theatrical run, this 1999 box office dud certainly hasn't had benefited from much of a renaissance on home video, but perhaps this HD DVD release is just what the doctor ordered...
Based on the cult Dark Horse comic of the same name, 'Mystery Men' tells the tale of the most, um, unique (or just plain pathetic) band of superheroes you've ever seen. There's Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), whose power comes from his boundless rage; The Shoveler (William H. Macy), a father who shovels "better than anyone"; The Blue Raja (Hank Azaria), a fork-flinging mama's boy; The Bowler (Janeane Garofalo), who fights crime with the help of her father's skull; The Spleen (Paul Reubens), whose power is pure flatulence; The Sphinx (Wes Studi), a cliche-spewing philosopher; and (my personal favorite) Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell), who's only invisible when no one's watching.
How and why The Mystery Men got their superpowers is never particularly elaborated upon in the film. Equally surprising, the plot itself is fairly irrelevant (the amateur superheroes will eventually have to face off against "supervillain" Casanova Frankenstein, played by Geoffrey Rush). Instead, the real raison de entre of 'Mystery Men' is to watch it parody all the tired cliches of comic book flicks as it presents each of these bumbling goofs attempting to use their silly superpowers.
One needs only to have sat through one 'Batman' flick where Bruce Wayne scowls through the whole movie, or to have suffered the endless whining of Peter Parker over the "curse" of his superpowers in order to appreciate the pathos of the Mystery Men. It may have been a bummer for Superman to be stuck with that Clark Kent alter-ego, but try being The Spleen -- or The Blue Raja, whose costume consists of a bathrobe and a pair of forks. There are moments of truly inspired character satire in 'Mystery Men' that go far beyond the usual slapstick and lame one-liners of the spoof genre.
Still, as fun as it can be at times, much of 'Mystery Men' simply does not work. Like any of those Zucker Brothers parodies ('Airplane,' the 'Scary Movie' flicks), there as many misses here as there are hits. The direction by Kinka Usher (who doesn't seem to have done anything of note before or since) is as flat as a TV movie, and the film's overlong 122 minutes suffers from dull pacing and boring narrative dead-ends.
All things considered, it's hard to imagine that 'Mystery Men' will suddenly be rediscovered on HD DVD. Still, there is an underlying sweetness to the film that's the perfect antidote to the uber-serious tone of most comic book movies. A flawed but nifty little sleeper, 'Mystery Men' deserves a second look.
Universal seems to have been dusting off a lot of old masters for its recent spate of HD DVD catalog releases (including 'Daylight,' 'The Watcher' and 'Bruce Almighty'), and unfortunately 'Mystery Men' joins the list. The film first hit standard-def DVD way back in late 1999, and it doesn't look like the source has been upgraded at any point since.
To be sure, this 1080p/VC-1 encode isn't bad, it just shows it age. The print itself is in quite nice shape, with no blemishes or dirt or other such problems. Blacks hold firm throughout, and contrast has a normal, film-like consistency rare in today's age of pumped-up artifice. However, colors look dull and a bit fuzzy, especially more vivid hues. Most disappointingly, the upgrade to high-def just doesn't offer a huge boost over the standard DVD, with depth and detail only moderately improved. Softness is also apparent, with some edge enhancement visible, stemming from an apparent bid to increase sharpness. The transfer also looks somewhat dark, with shadow delineation poor at times. At least compression artifacts are not a problem, with no macroblocking or other anomalies present.
A bit better than the video is the audio, which is both lively and engaging. Granted, it can't hold up to a modern, gangbusters action mix, but for a 1999 flick, this one's not too shabby.
Universal serves up its usual English Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround track (at 1.5mbps), and surrounds are frequently active, with nicely dispersed discrete effects and well-executed pans between channels. Sustained ambiance isn't intense, but there is some nice minor atmosphere and decent bleed of the score. Dynamics hold up pretty well, with fairly tight bass and no issues with wacky high-end. Dialogue is a bit quiet at times, but that's somewhat typical of older mixes -- I had to adjust my volume to compensate once or twice, but nothing particularly irritating.
'Mystery Men' on HD DVD features the same set of supplements as the 1999 DVD release, and unfortunately this is a collection that clearly shows its age.
"Spotlight on Location: The Making of 'Mystery Men'" in particular shows just how far the art of featurette-making has come. More cheesy and obvious than usual, this piece features plenty of film clips and cast and crew interviews regurgitating plot points, but little else. Running 18 minutes, this one is only worth watching if you want to remember how lame making-of's could be back in early days of DVD.
Better is the screen-specific audio commentary with director Kinka Usher. To be frank, I'd never heard of Usher before 'Mystery Men' (and I'm not aware of anything he's done since), but he seems to be an amiable if somewhat dull fellow. At least the track is fairly comprehensive, covering the complete cast of characters, as well as the usual insight on the film's visual look, production design and effects. Solid, but dry.
The only other major extra is an assortment of ten Deleted Scenes. Seeing as the film is already way overlong at 122 minutes, all of these were wisely cut from the finished film. No uncovered gems here.
Next up are a couple of promotional items. "Soundtrack Presentation" is really the music video for the song "Who Are Those Mystery Men" by M.A.F.T. Emcees, plus a soundtrack CD tracklisting. There is also the film's Theatrical Trailer, which (like all of the video extras here) is presented in 480p/i/MPEG-2 video only.
Note that the original standard-def DVD contained a few text-based extras, but most were just dated production notes and cast info, which you can get easily over at the IMDB. Of those supplements, the only one Universal has retained is the "Origins of the Mystery Men Comic Book Characters," which details how each character was introduced in the original comic book series.
'Mystery Men' is definitely an uneven ride, but it has enough laughs to make it worth seeking out for comic book movie fans (or haters). This HD DVD, however, is a bit creaky -- another in a string of recent Universal rehashes from aged masters, 'Mystery Men' just doesn't offer enough of an upgrade over the standard-def DVD to warrant a purchase. Still, if you've never seen it before (and if it sounds like your cup of tea), this one's certainly worth adding to your Netflix queue.