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Misfit superheroes make the 4K grade: “Mystery Men”

Updated: Jan 20, 2023


(1&2) Ben Stiller plays Mr. Furious, and William H. Macy as The Shoveler, part of a ragtag team of superheroes who try to save Champion City from the evil Casanova Frankenstein.

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4K Ultra HD & Blu-ray; 1999; PG-13 for comic action violence and crude humor

Best extra: “We’re the Other Guys!: The Making of ‘Mystery Men’” with director Kinka Usher

THEY WERE AHEAD of their time. Twenty-three years ago, the outrageous comedy “Mystery Men” was a casualty of a crowded blockbuster season – landing No. 25 in box office returns that summer, topped by “Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace,” “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” and “The Sixth Sense.” “Mystery Men” premiered in August 1999, earning $33 million worldwide against a $68 million production budget.

But over the last two decades, it developed a cult following – mostly from DVD and cable TV. What’s it about? A ragtag team of superheroes using flying forks, spoons, bowling balls, shovels, and flatulence to try to save Champion City from the evil Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush).

The skillfully adapted story from Bob Burden’s obscure “Flaming Carrot Horse” comic series comes alive in the hands of one-and-done director Kinka Usher, whose career mysteriously hit a brick wall after the production. He hasn’t directed a feature film since.

(1) “Mystery Men” opened on August 9, 1999, with mostly practical effects and some computer-generated effects with an aerial view of Champion City. (2&3) Big Red (Artie Lang) and his gang attack a nursing home party. (4) Superheroes Blue Raja (Hank Azaria) with his forks, Mr. Furious, and The Shoveler fight the Red Eye gang to avail. (5&6) Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear) and his manager Vic Weems (Ricky Jay) are questioned by the press after saving the seniors.


During the new 23-minute featurette “We’re the Other Guys!: The Making of,” Usher provides plenty of backstories about his shortened career and the production. He started as a crew member loading cameras on movies, and as an assistant camera operator who began making suggestions during productions, which caught some ears. Several producers recommended he take a stab at directing, which he did, winning several awards for 30-second commercials for VISA, the “Got Milk?” campaign, Adidas, Bridgestone, and the Taco Bell Chihuahua.

“I started to get noticed and Hollywood came calling,” he says. His agent got a copy of the “Mystery Men” script, which was floating around Universal. Ben Stiller and Danny DeVito were first considered to helm the project, but the studio decided to go with the commercial director.

Usher’s first order was to assemble a cast of misfits – and he has high praise for his actors' improvisation skills – which included Ben Stiller (Mr. Furious), Janeane Garofalo (Bowler), William H. Macy (The Shoveler), Hank Azaria (Blue Raja), Kel Mitchell (Invisible Boy), Paul Reubens (Spleen), Wes Studi (Sphinx) and Greg Kinnear (Captain Amazing). First signing Rush, who had won the Best Actor Oscar for “Shine” two years earlier. “[Rush] got the ball rolling …. and propelled others to join,” Usher says in the featurette. Everyone was most surprised when he signed eccentric actor/musician Tom Waits (Doc Heller). Usher admits that at first, he wasn’t sold on Stiller, who the studio wanted to play Mr. Furious since he had just starred in the blockbuster comedy “There’s Something About Mary.” Ultimately Garofalo convinced her good friend to take the role.

The one thing Usher regrets most was not letting Macy grow a long mustache for Shoveler, something the actor wanted dearly for his character. He now realizes, “It would’ve looked great.”

(1&2) Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush) appears in front of the parole board, which deems him cured. (3) After the unsuccessful fight against the Red Eyes, Mr. Furious, The Shoveler, and Blue Raja go to the local diner and meet Monica (Claire Forlani) the new waitress. (4&5) Afterwards the three wannabe superheroes see Tony P (Eddie Izzard) a friend of Casanova Frankenstein. (6&7) The Shoveler is greeted by his wife Lucille (Jenifer Lewis) and son Roland (Philip Bolden).

He also assembled a secondary cast for a recruiting scene filmed in Shoveler’s backyard, jam-packed with wannabe superheroes bidding for an open slot. The sub-characters included comedians, musicians, actors, and friends of Usher. Director Michael Bay (“The Rock,” “Transformers,” “Ambulance”), played a frat-boy leader, rapper Pras Michel as Tony C, comedian Dane Cook as Waffler, and actor/contortionist Doug Jones as Pencilhead.

Most of the production was filmed on Universal Studios’ largest soundstages, with a few scenes in downtown L.A. and a dry California desert lakebed. Usher admits his biggest challenge as a first-timer was setting up scenes – blocking the camera shots – with so many characters with dialogue. Plus, the constant headaches of his lead actors rewriting their own lines, and the producers feeding new pages of dialogue. The script ballooned to an unmanageable 170-pages and footage for a four-hour movie. “It would’ve been a much better experience with a 100-page script,” he says. “It never got easy.”

One of the highlights is the practical effects (models and huge set pieces), which gave it “authenticity,” he recalls. And getting a 1959 Rambler family station wagon for Shoveler and his wife Lucille (Jenifer Lewis), which became the wheels for him and his superhero friends.

During the director’s commentary recorded in 2000, he talks about the shooting style of his alternate universe, mostly with a super wide-angle lens – ala Tim Burton (“Batman,” “Edward Scissorhands”) and Terry Gilliam (“Brazil,” “The Fisher King”) – to create a comic strip mood.

Three additional featurettes are included: “Inside Champion City: The Effects” interview with visual effects supervisor Todd Tucker; “I’m a Superhero, Mother: The Costumes" with designer Marilyn Vance, who says “Mystery Men” had the biggest costume budget in her career, topping “The Untouchables” and “Pretty Woman.”

“Disco Is Life: The Score(s) of ‘Mystery Men’" with film music historian Daniel Schweiger, who considers the music off-beat, a mishmash of traditional orchestral sound from composer Stephen Warbeck (“Shakespeare in Love”) and unhinged accents with Shirley Walker (“Batman Beyond”) adding replacement notes for moments that needed an extra punch, plus the top 10 hit and Grammy-nominated song “All Star” by Smash Mouth. The original “Spotlight On Location” featurette is also included, with cast and crew interviews.

(1) Casanova Frankenstein is united with Dr. Anabel Leek (Lena Olin), who served on the parole board. (2) Once released from prison Casanova captures Captain Amazing and plans a doomsday device, “Psycho-frakulator.” (3) Tony P and the Disco Boys confront the Mystery Men. (4&5) More superheroes are needed and they interview teenager Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell) and Spleen (Paul Reubens). (6-8) Plus, hold a recruitment party was held in The Shoveler’s backyard, with the Waffler (Dane Cook) and Carol/The Bowler (Janeane Garofalo).


This may be one of the best before and after 4K remastering jobs since the old Universal Blu-ray from 2012, which was soft, dark, and full of digital noise reduction. This time, Universal scanned the original camera negative in 4K, captured in open matte and theatrically (1.85:1 aspect ratio) from cinematographer Stephen H. Burum (“The Untouchables,” “Mission Impossible”) with Kino Lorber providing an assist through HDR grading in standard HDR10 and Dolby Vision. The enclosed new Blu-ray was also sourced from the 4K master and graded in SDR.

The overall visual experience is superb compared to the old 1080p. Colors, now saturated, have a real POP, while the natural film grain is light, controlled, and consistent providing the fine detail missing in previous editions. The image is also slightly brighter this go-'round, encoded onto a 100-gigabit disc with an average video bit rate of 70 megabits per second. The HDR10 maximum light level peaks at 4512 nits – far surpassing the brightest 4K setup of today that hits 1,750 nits, while the disc averages 913 nits. A prototype from Sony has a display that could peak at 10K nits.


The six-channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack has been carried over with a full-bodied soundstage from the front-driven dialogue to effects and music cues pushing left and right and effects bouncing to rear speakers, and a strong bass response to the subwoofer.

“The truth of the movie, once people saw it on DVD, took off and eventually made money. It was a failure in marketing, not moviemaking.” – Kinka Usher, director

— Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer

(1) The misfits train under The Sphinx (Wes Studi), a former Mexican wrestler. (2) Spleen and The Bowler visit Dr. Heller (Tom Waits) a creator of non-lethal weapons. (3) Monica starts to have feelings for Mr. Furious. (4) Center, Director Michael Bay plays a Frat Boy leader, a friend of Casanova Frankenstein. (5-7) The superheroes try to rescue Captain Amazing.


The final Showdown

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