Back in the 1980s, Grandpa likes to tell us, there were movie stars like Mel Gibson and Bruce Willis who could mug and crack wise while killing bad guys. They brought a Reaganesque charm to the action flick—it was morning in the movie theater. The new comedy MacGruber, which had its world premiere Monday night at the South by Southwest Film Festival, is a tribute to ‘80s touchstones like Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, and, of course, MacGyver. When the hapless bomb expert MacGruber (Will Forte) goes to the Pentagon to get his marching orders, there’s even a portrait of the Gipper staring down from the wall.
MacGruber is based on a Saturday Night Live sketch that has one very funny recurring joke. MacGruber is told to defuse a ticking bomb. His assistant, Vicki St. Elmo, yells, “Fifteen seconds, MacGruber!” But our hero has a restless mind. As the seconds tick away, he pontificates on issues like his finances, his son’s sexuality, race in America. Meanwhile, the bomb explodes, blowing him and his pals to smithereens. (In the movie, we learn that MacGruber has been awarded an unprecedented 16 Purple Hearts.) The writers of the film—Forte, John Solomon, and director Jorma Taccone—have taken that punchline and blown it up into a full-length feature.
“What I’m good at,” MacGruber says, “is kickin’ ass and rippin’ throats.”
There is a nuke-wielding madman (Val Kilmer) on the loose. His name is Dieter Von Cunth. This leads to many jokes that are incredibly predictable and yet somehow quite funny. (“I’m ready to pound some Cunth,” etc., etc.) The military knows only one man can stop Von Cunth: MacGruber, who retreated to a monastery in Ecuador after Von Cunth crashed MacGruber’s wedding and blew up his would-be bride (ex- SNLer Maya Rudolph). MacGruber and Von Cunth share a cuckolding history that is too twisted to reprint here, but suffice it to say: Von Cunth has a reason to be angry.
Urged out of Ecuador, MacGruber recruits two “killer-stoppers”: St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig), who had retired from crime-fighting to focus on her singing career, and Lt. Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillippe, biting his lip to keep from laughing). The movie, Taccone said, was written on off-weeks between Saturday Night Live episodes and filmed in just 28 days. Thus, there was no time for the usual frat pack scenes in which the director says, “Improvise here.” MacGruber the movie feels fast and compact. “I’m not good with plans,” MacGruber says. “I’m not good with clues. What I’m good at is kickin’ ass and rippin’ throats.”
It’s unclear whether the movie takes place in the 1980s or whether MacGruber simply carries the ‘80s around with him. He drives a Miata. When he parks it on a suburban boulevard, he removes his car stereo so it won’t get stolen. MacGruber has the kind of mullet you used to be able to pull off in polite society—one sported not only by MacGyver’s Richard Dean Anderson but Gibson in Lethal Weapon. Unlike those guys, MacGruber knows zilch about crime fighting. He is at his best when he pulls down his pants and distracts the bad guys with some odd behavior (another trick, come to think of it, borrowed from Gibson’s Lethal Weapon movies).
The MacGruber of SNL was mostly a numbskull. But the movie MacGruber is a jerk, a blustering phony—the Michael Scott of bomb-defusing. But Forte makes it work—indeed, gives the movie most of its biggest laughs—by grossing us out. A recurring joke has him offering sex to his boss after he does something wrong. After the screening Monday, Taccone he was worried MacGruber and St. Elmo’s incredibly graphic sex scene could give the movie an NC-17 rating. And Taccone wasn’t kidding. What you need to know is that MacGruber has recently had a bullet extracted from his groin; that he’s got some kind of fetish for belly buttons; and that his groans could wake the neighbors… eight miles away.
Forte may not be the funniest SNL player, but you can tell he’s game for anything and you go with him. Kristen Wiig is ready for her own vehicle, or at least an ensemble piece that makes her an equal part of the show. Phillippe looks like he’s relieved to be doing something funny for a change. And who would have thought that Val Kilmer, here wearing a ponytail, could become a cinematic elder statesman, a willing underminer of his old pretty-boy image? (Or perhaps not. Unlike the rest of the players, Kilmer apparently bolted the theater Monday before the post-movie Q and A.)
A non-spoiler: There’s no sign of Richard Dean Anderson, who appeared on Saturday Night Live as MacGruber’s father. “And that’s all I’ll say about that,” Taccone said Monday night.
The only thing that feels off about MacGruber is its staggeringly high body count—strange for a comedy, the movie has as many killings as any Gibson or Willis movie, and most of them are just as nonchalant. (That was one legacy of 1980s best left there.) But the (very professional) action scenes have the effect of making MacGruber feel more like a movie and less like a painfully distended Saturday Night Live sketch. There’s more than an hour of action and gags before Wiig finally unleashes her signature catchphrase: “Three minutes, MacGruber!” The crowd went wild. It was time for MacGruber to do his thing.
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Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast. His story about his grandfather’s softball career is in The Best American Sports Writing of 2009.