Will Forte, Kristen Wiig, and Ryan Phillipe shine as 'MacGruber' makes its SXSW debut
There is a long tradition of characters that have sprung to life as characters on "Saturday Night Live" making the jump from sketch form to feature film, and it's yielded all sorts of results over the years. "The Blues Brothers" and "Wayne's World" could be said to represent one end of the scale, with "It's Pat" and "The Ladies Man" at the other end. The demands of narrative long-form storytelling are totally different, in terms of how you build a character, than the expectations in a six-minute sketch with a recurring punchline. Some characters just can't make that jump.
"MacGruber" seems at first glance to be nearly impossible to adapt. After all, this is a character known for blowing himself up at the end of each sketch he appears in. There's no larger, richer world suggested during a "MacGruber" sketch. It's fairly one note. Then again, you know what else was fairly one note? '80s macho action films. And the great conceit of Jorma Taccone's film version of "MacGruber" is that it plays like a crappy Rambo sequel. It's uncanny timing, since this year's biggest trend seems to be the fetishistic resurrection of '80s action, with "The Losers" and "The A-Team" and "The Expendables" all coming soon. And here, before any of them, Taccone pretty much nails what they're all chasing, sending it up even as he embraces it fully. The result is a film that's easy to watch and consistently funny, even if it is as substantial as a merengue.
Will Forte stars here as the ultimate soldier of fortune, a decorated hero with a penchant for improvised weaponry and ripping throats and bomb defusing, and at the start of the film, he's gone into a self-imposed retirement to work through the traumatic wedding-day assassination of his wife (played in flashback by Maya Rudolph). His past comes looking for him, though, when the man who killed her, a greasy arms dealer named Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer, reminding us that he started his career as a great leading man clown), steals a nuclear warhead and the US Government, in the form of Powers Boothe, needs MacGruber to put together a team to go after the warhead, giving him an opportunity for some richly deserved revenge.
It's a modest film, and it doesn't shock me to hear it's a $10 million film shot in less than a month. The locations are basically a house, a warehouse, another house, a backyard. It's not elaborate. The film doesn't try to be an '80s action film in terms of scale or mayhem, and as a result, the focus is wisely kept on the character work by Forte, Kristen Wiig (as the hilariously-named Vicki St. Elmo), and Ryan Phillipe, who deserves an MVP award for his role as Lt. Dixon Piper, a younger military man who is initially impressed by the legend of MacGruber. They're the core team in the movie, and much of the film is about the three of them investigating and pursuing Von Cunth, and their rapport is what makes the film work. Forte and Wiig have developed a great working chemistry over the years, and she's very funny here. Wiig's got the strangest gift as an actor, the ability to consistently undersell a line to huge effect. The quieter and the more internal she lays something, the funnier she gets, and I'm not even sure how she does that. Forte strikes me as a genuine crazy person, and we're in the age where the Deification of the Lunatic has become a major comic archetype. In order to make it funny, you have to have a straight man that acknowledges the reality of the lunatic and offer up a counterpoint, and that's Phillipe in the film. He goes through the process of being disillusioned by MacGruber, then learns to appreciate the particular gifts he does offer, and Phillipe reveals personality that he's rarely been able to display on film in the past. I hope he gets the Captain America gig just because of a scene involving him and a stalk of celery in this film. That's the Captain America I've always imagined. Seriously. Kilmer isn't in a lot of the film, but he's appropriately vile, and he still has that insane comic timing that he just doesn't utilize that much anymore.
Technically, the film is very straightforward and pop-art bright and clean, and it moves at all points. It's a brisk 90 minutes, and at the end, you may not walk away retaining much of it, but that's not a slight. It's meant to be a brisk and silly ride, and it totally accomplishes its goals. What more can you ask?
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