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Film review: Meteor Man, The

Published: Friday, Aug. 20 1993 12:00 a.m. MDT

"The Meteor Man" is the latest writing-directing effort from Robert Townsend, who earlier gave us the farcical sketch film "Hollywood Shuffle" and the musical drama "The Five Heartbeats."

But this comic book spoof of superheroes doesn't serve him very well. Despite some amusing ideas, the script is underdeveloped, and Townsend's comic instincts as a director fail him in nearly every scene.

Townsend, who is a very appealing actor, stars as a mild-mannered inner-city substitute schoolteacher who plays with a jazz trio on the side. (One of the film's curiosities is that we never see the group play — we just hear people talk about it and, early on, Townsend is shown carrying a bass case.)

One night, as he is being pummeled by local gang members in an alley, a huge green meteor smashes into Townsend, endowing him with super powers. Of course, he's so meek that he's hesitant to use or even experiment with them. But eventually, he's forced into action by his parents (Marla Gibbs, Robert Guillaume) and neighbors to adopt the persona of "Meteor Man" and take on the local drug dealers and gang members who are ruining the neighborhood.

Toward the end of the film, one of the villains (and there are far too many) also gains super powers, entering into a one-on-one duel with Townsend (an obvious nod to "Superman II"). Included is a funny moment when both discover they can become empowered by books merely by touching them. But the scene is so long and dull — the climax goes on forever — that even this bit finds its humor muted.

Small roles by the likes of James Earl Jones (as a jazz aficionado who wears bad wigs) and Bill Cosby (as a homeless man) illustrate that Townsend needs some help in beefing up the laugh quotient. Having Jones wear a goofy hair style and Cosby's trademark nonsense mumble are not inherently funny. (There are also appearances by Naughty By Nature, Sinbad, Nancy Wilson, Luther Vandross and many others.)

What's more, the film is surprisingly violent for a picture aimed at kids, with an awful lot of mayhem and gunplay.

But the real problem here is that the film is so sluggish and flabby, with whole scenes that drag and seem to be setups without payoffs, that the audience has too much time to ponder its weaknesses. Some judicious editing might have helped — but probably not that much.

"The Meteor Man" is rated PG for violence.