Saturday Night Live features are distinctly hit-and-miss, as shoddy SNL films greatly outnumber the decent ones. The challenge of SNL features is taking vaguely-drawn, one-joke characters and not only expanding their worlds but also building a cohesive narrative around them. 2010′s MacGruber marks the first SNL feature in ten years, and the odds were heavily stacked against it. In addition to this being an SNL feature, MacGruber was birthed out of brief comedy segments (spoofing MacGyver) that were aired between actual skits, and each segment rarely lasted more than a couple of minutes. This is hardly a solid foundation on which to construct a feature-length satire of action movies. Yet, the final product is satisfying and surprisingly assured thanks to a game cast and an often hilarious screenplay. In all likelihood, movie-goers would have breathed a sigh of relief if the film merely wasn’t awful. The fact that it’s pretty damn good and downright hilarious is the icing on the cake.
At the beginning of the story, super-villain Dieter Von Cunth (Kilmer) steals a nuclear missile from the Russians with plans to sell the destruction of America to the highest bidder. Washington is in a panic, and come to the conclusion that the nation’s only hope is MacGruber (Forte), a man with more military honours than brain cells. Convinced to emerge from retirement in order to exact revenge on Cunth who killed his fiancée ten years ago, MacGruber assembles a crack squad for the assignment. Unfortunately, his squad of tough guys are killed in an accidental explosion, so MacGruber is left with his former colleague-turned-popstar Vicki St Elmo (Wiig) and nerdy military stiff Lt. Piper (Phillippe) to form his elite team. Predictably, the path to foiling Cunth’s evil plan is fraught with setbacks, leaving the hero to doubt his abilities at a time when American needs him the most.
Director Jorma Taccone and writers Forte and Jason Solomon essentially dropped the titular character into a standard ’80s action flick, offering up the type of plot you’d expect to see in a Chuck Norris or Steven Seagal flick. The story is exceedingly elementary, of course, but that’s all the better for a film that primarily aims to spoof the clichés of the brawn-over-brains action flicks of the ’80s. Thus, beyond the obvious MacGuyver spoof, MacGruber takes shots at pretty much every action movie of yesteryear, from Die Hard to Rambo III to Lethal Weapon. The genre mickey-taking is not always as effective as Airplane! or the Austin Powers movies, but the nods are sly and mostly amusing – there’s a proverbial team-assembling montage, a requisite back-story connecting Cunth and MacGruber, and a familiar-feeling climactic action scene. To his credit, director Taccone effectively managed to replicate the look and feel of an ’80s action movie on a slim $10 million budget. The film even contains a so-bad-it’s-good soundtrack of ’80s radio hits.
The makers of MacGruber were clearing willing to do anything to earn a laugh. The disturbing positioning of a stick of celery, references to “upperdecking”, and two spectacularly loud sex scenes indeed highlight that the film is not powered by cerebral wit. Rather, it’s a comedy tailored for the part of the brain that appreciates immaturity and smutty humour. The R-rating is a huge asset in this respect, as the filmmakers had the freedom to be as gleefully politically incorrect as they wanted. If this type of humour appeals to you, MacGruber is the motherlode. The stupid gags are somehow balanced with a bit of intelligence, though, as some of the comedy is so quick and subtle that it may take a few viewings to catch everything. Huge laughs are not always scored, but the film remains fun and well-paced all the way through, and this is more than what can be said for most contemporary comedies. And just when you think the laughs are over, a hilarious photo montage plays over the end credits.
Will Forte is terrific as the title character – his enthusiasm and conviction never falters. Forte is also rather fearless, as he had no issue forgoing every morsel of dignity for the sake of getting a laugh. Plus, Forte – and, by extension, MacGruber – takes everything with a straight face, and this makes him all the funnier. Ryan Phillippe, meanwhile, is an affable straight man to MacGruber’s blithe idiocy, while Kristen Wiig again proves here what a lovely talent she is both in comedy and acting in general. Another standout is Val Kilmer as Cunth, who clearly had a ball with the ridiculous material and was not afraid to embrace the ham that his role offered. Kilmer is only around for a limited time, but whenever he’s on the screen he provides a serious comedic spark that brings up the movie several notches. Rounding out the main players of the cast is Power Boothe (who actually featured in action movies of the ’80s and ’90s), and he’s spot on. The entire ensemble managed to do a superb job of selling the absurdity, and there are no weak spots.
MacGruber is not the type of movie which begs for a deep critical analysis – it wears everything on its sleeve, and never aspired to please the cynical critics. It’s funny – that’s what counts. Plus, to the credit of everyone involved, the film does not merely feel like an ill-considered exercise in dragging out a five-minute skit to feature-length proportions. It’s definitely the funniest and best Saturday Night Live movie since Wayne’s World (though the competition is not exactly stiff). Leaving your brain at the door is a requirement, though, as this is a monumentally stupid guilty pleasure. MacGruber is, in short, destined to become one of those movies that guys will love to watch in droves with a large supply of alcohol, pizza, and confectionery.