Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, March 19, 2019

RECENT WATCHES: The Specials (2000)

James Gunn got his start making sleazy nonsense for Troma. Which is about as far as one can get from the big budget superhero movies that would eventually make him famous the world over. The guy is clearly interested in exploring or subverting the elements classically associated with masked or caped heroes. Before directing brutal deconstruction of the genre “Super,” Gunn would pen a far goofier riff on superheroes. “The Specials,” much like the previous year's “Mystery Men,” would focus on comic book-style adventurers with less than conventional abilities. Director duties would fall on Craig Mazin. Released to little acclaim in 2000, the film would eventually attract a very small cult following.

The Specials are the seventh most popular superhero team in America. As that superlative implies, the team is not especially respected or well regarded. The characters' powers range from the useful, like leader the Strobe who can shoot energy blasts, to the unconventional, like shrinking hero Minute-Man. Yet fighting evil is not on the team's mind today. As newcomer Nightbird joins the team, a toy company has agreed to make an action figure line based on them. The Strobe's wife, Ms. Indestructible, is having an affair with the Weevil, the team's sole popular member. Villain-turned-hero Amok disagrees with every decisions that made while supposedly super-intelligent Mr. Smart doesn't seem that clever. All these fears and more will come to the surface as the day goes on.

As I've mentioned in the past, one of my favorite comedy tropes is when the fantastic collides with the mundane. So I love the idea behind “The Specials,” a superhero movie totally lacking in special effects or action scenes. Mostly, the film is about the not-so-superheroes bickering about petty bullshit. However, while the idea is strong, the execution leaves something to be desired. Director Mazin shoots the film in an entirely flat fashion. The movie flip-flops between being a traditional narrative and a mockumentary, reality show-style interviews being inserted without much rhyme or reason. There's no sense of pacing here, the movie listlessly wandering from barely-there plot points to not-quite-solid gag.

There's also evidence to suggest that James Gunn's script was not his best work. Yes, “The Specials” did make me laugh, from time to time. There's a good gag were the otherwise child-like Alien Orphan suddenly speaks clearly. The funniest moment comes when the Specials see the promo for the proposed toy line based on them, which leaves much to be desired. The dim-witted U.S. Bill provides a few chuckles, as does the Strobe's nonsensical rousing speeches or an unexpected dance number to Reunion's “Life is the Rock.” Yet there's a mean-spirited edge to the humor here. Such as Amok's foul mouth, Minute-Man's outfit being called “gay,” or Deadly Girl's needlessly mean reaction to another team attempting to recruit here.

What really holds this very ramshackle production together is a surprisingly solid cast. Despite its obvious low budget, the film attracted a few established faces or stars-to-be. Thomas Haden Church hits the right balance of sanctimonious, deeply misplaced pride as the Strobe. Jordan Ladd is the film's sole source of sweetness and sincerity as Nightbird, a young woman desperate to prove herself in her own way. Rob Lowe is well cast as the Weevil, a vain self-promoter with few actual scruples. Judy Greer and Paget Brewster's sarcastic scorn are put to good use as Deadly Girl and Mrs. Indestruction. James Gunn himself gives a decent performance as the insecure Minute-Man, while his brother Sean is unquestionably weird as Alien Orphan. And then there's Jamie Presley, as Amok, swearing a lot and being obnoxious.

While James Gunn has done quite  a lot of riffing on superheroes throughout his career, maybe he shouldn't get the blame or credit for what does and does not work about “The Specials.” Director Craig Mazin has gone on to a successful career as a comedy screenwriter, co-writing commercial hits like “Identity Theft” or the latter two “Hangover” movies. As a director, his only other credit is “Superhero Movie,” another spoof of superhero flicks. That's a weirdly similar pair of movies, isn't it? While I want to like “The Specials,” it's just not nearly as funny, charming, or memorable as it needs to be. [5/10]

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