'Super Mario Bros.' (PG)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 29, 1993; 12:00 AM

Who would have thought that "Super Mario Bros.," the movie based on the popular video game, could be such a treat? There are some, I'm sure, who saw the end of civilization here. But relax. This movie, which was directed by music video whiz kids Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, is sweet and funny and full of bright invention. In short, it's a blast.

The picture begins in Brooklyn 20 million years ago, when dinosaurs happily walked the Earth and Flatbush Avenue was a green and leafy trail through the brush. Suddenly, according to the story (which was written by Parker Bennett, Terry Runte and Ed Solomon) a meteorite destroyed most of the planet, forcing the giant beasts underground, where during the eons between then and now, they evolved into people, just like us. Just like us, except that they are descended from reptiles, not mammals, and live in a parallel universe ruled by a tyrannical lizard king named Koopa.

Koopa, played by Dennis Hopper with his hair done up in blond ruffles like those on a tuxedo shirt, has a plan to merge the two worlds and take over with his gang of eight-foot-tall Goombas (big dumb goons with shrunken little dino heads). To succeed, all he has to do is find Princess Daisy (Samantha Mathis) in the other world, steal the tiny particle of meteorite she keeps on a strap around her neck and put it back inside the main meteor.

So far, though, he's had very little luck. Because the two lackeys he's sent to find the girl (played delightfully as a pair of punk losers by Richard Edson and Fisher Stevens) aren't too smart, they keep bringing Koopa the wrong girl. And when they do finally manage to deliver the real Daisy, she's accompanied by a pair of super-hero plumbers named Luigi and Mario Mario (John Leguizamo and Bob Hoskins), who by their efforts to save Daisy throw a monkey wrench into the evil dictator's plot.

As you might imagine, though, the story is hardly the movie's main attraction. What makes "Super Mario Bros." such a good ride is its rambunctious toss-away spirit. Morton and Jankel (who also directed the remake of the noir classic "D.O.A." and were the creators of "Max Headroom") have given the film a flamboyantly colored, densely cluttered surface that resembles (especially in the reptile kingdom) "Blade Runner" on a semi-sunny day. And though they keep the action moving along briskly, they leave plenty of room for bizarro bits of fun.

Like what? Like Dennis Hopper flicking his lizard tongue as the germ-phobic Koopa and ogling Princess Daisy. ("You look so fresh, so clean," he says, with just a hint of "Blue Velvet" in his voice.) There are also a huge woman named Bertha (Francesca Roberts) in a red leather outfit decorated with red rubber who takes a shine to Mario (calling him "Fluffy Buns") and a cuddly baby tyrannosaurus rex named Yoshi, whose appearance will certainly whet our appetites for the upcoming "Jurassic Park."

Strangely enough, the actors don't get lost in all the pyrotechnics. As Mario, Hoskins is a solid, practical older-brother type who raised Luigi by himself and who's always talking about the importance of keeping your tools nearby. It's Leguizamo's buoyant performance, though, that gives the film its light, innocent tone. Leguizamo (who is best known for his phenomenal one-man show "Spic-o-rama") is a remarkable, baby-faced actor, and as Luigi, he comes across as a likable lunkheaded, up-for-anything kid who's never had a dark thought in his life. His crush on Daisy (who, thanks to Mathis's spunky performance, makes a more than worthy damsel in distress) gives the movie heart.

The underground, sewer-pipe world here may seem familiar from the "Ninja Turtle" movies, but aside from the pizza Koopa orders just before he puts his evil plan into action, the similarities end there. Nothing in those films can compare with the Goombas (who are the best movie heavies since the flying monkeys in "The Wizard of Oz") or the adorable Yoshi. "Super Mario Bros." may be junk, but it's superior junk. It wipes the floor with those turtle dudes.

© 1993 The Washington Post Company