MacGruber: making life-saving inventions out of household materials.
How many films feature a primary antagonist falling to their death? Die Hard, sure. The Return of the King, check. GoldenEye, there’s another. Let’s narrow it down: how many films feature a primary antagonist falling to their death while the protagonist unleashes a round of ammunition into the falling victim before firing off a rocket and emptying his bladder on the corpse? Hans Gruber didn’t have to put up with that, at least not in the theatrical cut.
MacGruber goes big; that much is obvious from our first glimpse of the eponymous champion, heavily censored newspaper clippings hinting at the “real American hero”, “explosives expert” and “skilled lover”, seen tinkering with household items and playing a saxophone solo in an empty warehouse. Take a minute to watch the title sequence below; you won’t be missing anything. I’ll stay here, but I’m going to think about products I might like to purchase.
MacGruber: getting in and out of ultra sticky situations
Sure, Saturday Night Live doesn’t have a great record when it comes to cinematic endeavours. For every Wayne’s World there exists a Night at the Roxbury, a Ladies’ Man or a Coneheads. What stops MacGruber from joining this horrifying pannedtheon of failures is its (frequently realised) ambition. While its counterparts content themselves to turn one-note characters into one-note films – the Ladies’ Man… hits on ladies – MacGruber aspires to take on an entire genre.
The sketches behind the character would have suggested a different fate. Each week a celebrity guest finds themselves behind the sealed/welded/magnet-locked door of a tanker/factory/monastery control room alongside MacGruber, faithful sidekick Vicki St. Elmo and a ticking time bomb/RPG/warhead. As the tension builds, so too does the discussion of whatever issue is at the fore this week – racism/ageing/alcoholism. Talk happens, defusing does not. Explosion.
Though the escalation of these sketches often led to some inventive twists on predictability, it essentially meant that come movie time MacGruber and St. Elmo were blank slates upon which co-writers Forte, director Jorma Taccone and longtime SNL writer John Solomon could do what they wanted. It was down to the funny people to be funny.
Like the sketches then, the film’s plot thus became disarmingly simple and incredibly familiar: a stolen nuclear warhead and a prime suspect who’s a respected member of society. The US has one hope and one lead: the former, MacGruber, a recipient of sixteen Purple Hearts now living a life of peace in Ecuador; the latter, criminal mastermind Dieter von Cunth (Val Kilmer). Faced with a chance to take down his old adversary, MacGruber dons his utility vest, grabs his car stereo and puts the ol’ gang back together.
MacGruber: the guy’s a fuckin’ genius
It’s a recruitment list dripping with testosterone, with names like Vernon Freedom, Brick Hughes and Tut Beemer, hulking slabs of beef played by wrestlers like Chris Jericho, Kane and the Great Khali. And it’s set to Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s ‘Touch & Go’.
Forte, Taccone and Solomon flourish by escalating the already-absurd staples of the ’80s actioneer; what if those films of yore had done away with the synth and set themselves to contemporary Toto, Eddie Money and Gerry Rafferty? What if the homoeroticism was pushed just a little bit further, and further, and further?
“You and your dick comments”
“It’s fun to say ‘em”
“It’s fun to hear them”
“That’s why I say them”
“And that’s why I listen”
Rather than referencing something we’ve seen before, MacGruber pulls in a bunch of different sources and pushes them to the extremes of credulity.
Want to show that MacGruber doesn’t hide in the shadows? Taccone has him enter a nightclub, assault the bartender, grab a microphone, threaten to kill his own crew member, reveal his name letter by letter (clarifying upper and lowercase), give his precise whereabouts at 2pm the next day and drop the mic – horizontally, through a window, at 30 mph. Summation: “that went great; that was fucking tits!”
MacGruber: he made a fuckin’ movie.
The tone is reminiscent of Hot Rod, released three years earlier and directed by Taccone’s Lonely Island compatriot Akiva Schaffer. Similarly under-appreciated on release, it now proudly carries that moniker “cult classic”. The two share a charm in their childlike, real-ish worlds where a cougar roar can sound when rockets are fired but a Blaupunkt car stereo still requires removal after parking for fear of theft.
A lot of that charm can also be traced to Mr. MacGruber himself. After his eight-year stint on SNL, Forte has recently settled into dramatic roles on the big screen (Nebraska, Life of Crime, Run & Jump) while keeping the funny on the small (The Last Man on Earth, 30 Rock). In neutral, Forte’s voice sounds like it’s made for radio, but at the flick of a switch his characters can descend to gabbling, cowardly maniacs or enraged, crazy-eyed lunatics. MacGruber is all this. To some degree he’s a cipher for the madness that Forte, Taccone and Solomon dream up, but really he’s the primary cause and embodiment.
This wouldn’t work if the character didn’t cool down, take a breather, show some humanity. We’re never going to relate to a character as animated and egotistical as MacGruber but we’ve still got to believe his motivations. This produces cinema’s most crudely off-putting and entertaining sex scenes since Team America. Set to Mr Mister’s ‘Broken Wings’, what starts as a soft-focus montage of slow fades quickly snaps to Forte’s frantic thrusting and wheezing. It goes from funny to disturbing, and up to hilarious about the time the dirty talk starts: “I’m gonna fill you up.” Five minutes later, he does it all over again.
At 90 minutes, MacGruber doesn’t have time to feel overlong. The predictability of the plot allows each step along the way to be played with and subverted, every last laugh wrung out before moving on. And despite a miniscule budget of $10 million that still wasn’t clawed back, there’s no doubting Taccone’s gift at putting together an efficient action flick. Take away MacGruber and it’s as generic a table-setting as they come – helped by supporting turns from Kilmer, Ryan Phillippe and Powers Boothe playing straight to the madness around them. Add MacGruber and its a whole different beast.
Some five years after its release, Will Forte recently let slip about a possible sequel. And sure, sequels to SNL films are always worse than their predecessors, but with Grubes you can’t be sure of anything except that there will probably be a mullet, a Blaupunkt, a utility vest and an unforeseen but climactic explosi-