MacGruber is out on DVD today. I was one of the few and the proud who saw it around the time of its theatrical release. It was kind of an awkward screening, actually — me, Will Forte’s parents, Earl “DMX” Simmons, and Val Kilmer. I’m not sure what DMX was doing there, but he seemed to like the movie and so did I. Can’t say I recommend the movie for everyone, but I do recommend that everyone read what I wrote about MacGruber, because it’s goddamned crazy.
Okay, so obviously it was a bad idea. Don’t get me wrong – after giving it a chance, I’m glad they gave it a whirl. But a bomb is a bomb is a bomb, and that’s not a MacGruber in-joke either. People just plain didn’t want to see a movie based on a SNL sketch based on a corny ‘80s TV show. There are some reasons for that, which I’ll get to, but personally, once I found out that MacGruber the movie had less to do with MacGyver the TV show and more to do with the action-movie also-rans of the 1980s, I got way interested in checking it out.
MacGruberis pitched to a very specific kind of movie nut. It’s a movie for guys (and trust me – all of us are guys, and I can’t imagine that there is a single lady among us) who recognize and appreciate names such as Robert Z’Dar, Brion James, Al Leung, and Sonny Landham. Great, you’ve seen all five Rocky movies, but have you seen Cobra? Or better yet, Lock-Up? Or better still, have you gone past the movies starring Rocky Balboa and headed for the ones starring Apollo Creed? Ever seen Action Jackson?
Some guys think they know about guy’s-guy movies because they’ve seen Pulp Fiction or The Matrix a few times – but can you hold your own in a conversation about the work of Walter Hill? Fuck that even – can you hold it down when the phrase Golan-Globus comes up? How big is your action-movie dick? (Pardon my American.) How far have you gone in the name of action cinema? I’m talking about true dudes, the ones who go to the outer edges of action movies to find an explosion we haven’t seen before. I’m talking about the ones who take it to the limit. We are the people who are darker than blue. We’re not just Tarantino fans – we’re Quentin’s people. We get the references. We’re talking about a brand of movie wherein Tango & Cash is a high water mark in terms of quality. (Sarcasm translator translates: Tango & Cash is no Die Hard.)
That’s the kind of guy who MacGruber is made for. That’s a big reason why MacGruber ended up with the lowest opening of any SNL film ever – because its target audience is watching movies at a time of day when the rest of the world is asleep. There’s no movie theater in the country that’s open for business when these guys come looking, and that’s probably a good thing for all those families who came out for Shrek McHappy Meals this past weekend.
The other reason is that, as MacGruber proves, it’s kind of redundant to spoof the kind of movies that MacGruber is meant to spoof, the movies that I cited above and the many more like them. The action movies of the 1980s, even the best of them, were drenched in excess and frequently bordered comedy somewhere out there at the city limits. No one who loves these movies should need parody to highlight their most ridiculous moments. Some of them, such as Commando, don’t seem to know how funny they are, while others incorporate humor much more cannily. Die Hard is almost halfway a comedy, for how funny it is. But whether the comedy is intended or stumbled upon, I think my point is still revealing. I love the first Predator movie like a brother – it’s quick and brutal and efficient and entertaining as all hell – but even I laugh at the early scene where Dillon and Dutch clench fists in an adversarial handshake and director John McTiernan cuts to a close-up of their flexed biceps (twenty bucks says the Governor made him do it). The laugh is there already, intentional or not – to recreate it in a comedy is to repeat a joke you’ve already heard. It goes without saying that the Predator handshake is referenced in MacGruber, and it not only didn’t work with me for the aforementioned reason, but it didn’t work with my crowd because they didn’t get the reference. (Then again, the “Now I have a machine gun” moment from Die Hard is also referenced in one of MacGruber’s best jokes, so I always allow that I could be wrong.)
In the spirit of ‘80s actioners, MacGruber doesn’t have much in the way of plot. It starts out with a curiously laugh-free sequence where the film’s bad guys hijack a shipment carrying a gigantic warhead, which they ultimately intend to use to blow up Washington DC. That sequence is a pretty good approximation of a straight action movie, but it’s a curious way to set the tone for what’s meant to be a comedy. Anyway, from there MacGruber becomes a Rambo-esque “Back In Action” kind of story, wherein MacGruber, played by SNL’s Will Forte, is brought out of retirement (and presumed death) by his prospective new partner, played by the much-better-than-you-probably-think-he’d-be Ryan Phillippe, and his old mentor, played by the always-reliable Powers Boothe. (What do you think Christmas is like at the Boothe household? Does he have nieces and nephews who call him “Uncle Powers?” I don’t know why that idea seems so funny to me.) Anyway, both these guys are terrific straight-men, really. The question mark remains the film’s star.
I’m not totally sold on Will Forte yet – he’s like a sibilant Jim Carrey without the crazy eyes. Actually, with the mullet he looks a lot more like Uncle Joey from Full House, but let’s go with the first thing I said. Although Forte is willing to go all the way in on a joke (as evidenced by the scene where he strips down and sticks a stalk of celery up his ass – long story), he also doesn’t stack up yet to the level of the great SNL madmen of legend. My SNL Mount Rushmore goes like so: Murray, Aykroyd, Belushi, Murphy. In the early days, there was a danger to those guys that the new breed doesn’t have just yet. The current SNL cast is thoroughly likable, but they all seem nicer than my nicest friend. There’s not enough insanity there. But the MacGruber movie is a step in the right direction. Thanks to the R rating, Will Forte gets to go to a well of darkness nearly an hour into the movie that made me come alive with laughter – it’s the scene where MacGruber explains why his arch-enemy hates him so much – but it took quite a while to get there. Once the movie went there, though, I have to say that I started to dig it. The first fifty or so minutes don’t have nearly as much of a spark, but that last half-hour of MacGruber is pretty golden – it’s a great start, Will Forte. Keep it up!
What really makes MacGruber worth an eventual late-night spin is the work by its romantic lead and main villain. SNL’s Kristen Wiig plays the former and insanity’s Val Kilmer plays the latter, although it would be funny if they had switched roles before production. I’m already on record as being a big Kristen Wiig fan and I’m hardly unique on that score – she’s been the best thing about SNL for quite some time, and so far we’ve only seen a flicker of what she’s capable of bringing to film comedy. Here she plays a pretty standard Kristen Wiig character – shy and tentative with vast reserves of weirdness just under the surface. It might have been funnier to see her stretch a little and to play a character even half as loud and abrasive as MacGruber is, but even standard Kristen Wiig is pretty damn good. Her best moment is probably when she’s called upon to impersonate MacGruber, and then when she’s called upon immediately afterwards to impersonate one of the evil henchmen in the movie. Also, the songs she sings are pretty worthwhile.
Meanwhile, can we talk about Val Kilmer? What the hell happened here? This guy is a phenomenally talented actor who for a while there had amassed one of the coolest filmographies of the last couple decades and who became as huge as a star can get (hell, he played Batman once!) before plummeting to a place in the hierarchy where he now regularly trolls the obscure end of the made-for-DVD spectrum. In the space of a decade, this guy went from co-starring with DeNiro and Pacino, to co-starring with 50 Cent. (Of course, DeNiro and Pacino went to starring with 50 Cent too, but please don’t remind me about that one.) Where did Val Kilmer go wrong? When does he get to go right again? Where’s his Mickey Rourke comeback? Where’s Val Kilmer’s role in an Iron Man movie? Can he really be that much of an asshole in real life? Anyway, Val Kilmer does a good job in MacGruber. He gets a couple funny lines in, although not as many as you’d hope, and he wears a pretty great Alex Godunov/ Chris Shiherlis ponytail through the whole thing. My favorite part was when [SPOILER ALERT] he shows up scarred at the end and his deformities make him look even more like a lion than usual. Maybe a big-screen Beauty And The Beast update might yet be the redemption of Val Kilmer. Kristen Wiig can take the Linda Hamilton role. You hear that, Kilmer? Ideas are percolating.