Thirty years have passed since The Blues Brothers hit theaters. In that time 10 more Saturday Night Live movies have gone from sketch to screen. It goes without saying that the critical and box office track record has been abysmal. The assumed mediocrity of SNL movies has now joined the likes of Star Trek's Odd Numbered Movies Bad/Even Number Movies Good, and Multiple Villains ruin Superhero Sequels theory, as recognized Pop Culture law. MacGruber, SNL film number uno uno, does little to correct that thinking.
A spoof on the 1980s action show MacGyver, MacGruber the SNL sketch features Will Forte donning a stringy mullet, plaid shirt and jeans to play a bumbling super agent who begins each roughly 60 to 90 second sketch asking his assistants, usually including that week's SNL guest playing a role, for random items to help him defuse a bomb. Instead of completing his mission though, Macgruber's personal issues and faults get in the way and the bomb explodes anyway. In a recent sketch he proposed to his grandmother, played by Betty White, after admitting he never found a woman as good as her. If you’re wondering, she accepts, and the bomb explodes just as they are about to commemorate their future union with a bit of incestuous snogging, as the Brits would say.
In the film version, after his wife (Maya Rudolph) was gruesomely killed right before his eyes on their wedding day, MacGruber has retired from a life of missions and intrigue, and for 10 years he's lived a monastic life South of the Border. When the X-5, the most dangerous nuke ever built, is stolen by Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer), MacGruber is recruited by his old boss Col. James Faith (Powers Booth) to bring down Cunth who happens to also be MacGruber’s long time nemesis.
Forte, along with co-writers John Solomon and Jorma Taccone, who also directed, have expanded the MacGruber universe, turning the title character into a legend whose exploits in world saving have earned him, among other accolades, 16 Purple Hearts and a Presidential Medal of Honor. What Forte, Solomon and Taccone didn't do is explain how such a bumbling, self-absorbed ass earned all that shirt salad and became one of the United States most feared warriors. Nor, other than using his name as an ironic joke, do they demonstrate why Col. Faith would put so much trust in MacGruber to save the world.
It would be hard enough in a straight action film to root for a Navy SEAL, Army Ranger AND Green Beret trained hero, that’s so bad at his job that a headline asserts that on one mission alone, his actions resulted in the deaths of over 200 innocent people. For MacGruber this paradox is the main source of the film’s self-inflicted comedy wound, a gaping one so large, it bleeds the premise of many potential jokes.
As primarily a send up of 80s action characters and tropes, Macgruber, who refuses to even use a gun—the 80s action hero default weapon of choice—doesn't actually do anything, other than rip out throats during the climax, that's remotely action-y. If MacGruber’s in-film-legend had been built on the fact that he’s the anti-action action hero, whose wacky methods illicit results, more jokes would have probably hit their mark. It would establish why military brass would believe ruses like sticking celery stalks up your bum, or equipping yourself with bottle caps, thumb tacks and dental floss, rather than grabbing an M-16 and a handful of grenades, are actually effective tactics, and not the designs of an egotistical loon.
When Ryan Phillipe’s Piper, a recent military graduate who becomes MacGruber’s second in command, quickly recognizes that MacGruber is not the real deal before the first act has even come to an end, it puts into question the entire basis of the movie.
What made MacGyver so ripe for parody was the absurdity that one man could travel the world defeating any number of heavily armed baddies using only his fists, a near encyclopedic knowledge of scientific principles and whatever odd bits of material were conveniently lying around at the moment. A MacGruber that had pushed this one-man army conceit even further, having the title character create even more fantastic, improbable gadgets from nothing and creating a swath of unholy destruction to rival Rambo’s using 10 fingers and 10 toes, would have made for a potent entry in the 2010 Summer Blockbuster sweepstakes. Instead, we’re left with a tepid entry in the SNL film cannon, that isn’t horrible, but whose only real achievement is “being better than the average SNL movie.”