Sunday, May 23, 2010

Last Action Hero: MacGruber

Toward the beginning of MacGruber, an absolutely ridiculous theme song plays, seeming to say: “Do you even believe we’re making this a movie?!” Only minutes before, a very meaty Val Kilmer (whose character’s name is something of a joke I’ll refrain from telling) has put a plan into action, and there’s only one man who can stop him. That man is MacGruber (Will Forte), a heavily decorated ex-military officer (and former UTEP basketball player) who has been hiding out in New Mexico. With his nemesis looking to strike again, MacGruber is asked to come out of hiding to stop him.

Recruiting a team to aid his cause (his second team, after the first meets with an unfortunate end), MacGruber creates his battle plans on the fly, lacking in preparation what he makes up for in, um...surprise? With the willing assistance of Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig) and Lt. Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillippe), the incredibly unstable MacGruber does everything he can (including making some rather oft-putting pleas) in hopes of avenging the killer of his late bride (Maya Rudolph).

While it earnestly refrains from being a “spoof” movie, MacGruber is nonetheless laced with satire. It can’t help it; it’s in its DNA. Born from a series of sketches on Saturday Night Live, shorts which always end in an explosion, the MacGruber character (created as a send up of MacGyver) is a bumbling nit-wit who can never diffuse the bomb in time. But on the big screen, he’s much more than that.

Describing the character to New York Magazine, director Jorma Taccone explained MacGruber as “super-narcissistic, a little bit homophobic, a little racist, a little sexist.” And while he is all those things, the more interesting thing about the MacGruber character is that he fits the classic idea of an action hero – a renegade player who can’t conform or fit into normal society, who embraces unorthodox methods and refuses to play by the rules. But, unlike a John McClane-type, MacGruber doesn’t play by society’s rules not because he’s a bemused tough guy, but because he’s an idiot. It’s likely he’s not even aware of what society’s rules are.

The inversion of this notion of the action hero obfuscates the idea that MacGruber is a “hero” at all. In a scene where MacGruber and Lt. Piper are having a couple of beers, MacGruber unwittingly incriminates himself while revealing his history with his now-nemesis. It’s this moment (and many, many others) where you wonder if you should really be rooting for this guy, knowing you probably shouldn’t, but still morbidly curious to see what he’s going to do next.

It’s Will Forte’s genuine weirdness and commitment to his character that sustain MacGruber. Unlike, say, Austin Powers, where the audience is being winked at and signaled when to laugh, here laughs come from the uncomfortable and awkward moments. Wiig is at her best when keeping her character reserved, only occasionally slipping into the frenetic pace she employs in the SNL “MacGruber” sketches.

MacGruber more closely resembles Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America, than any other SNL-based offering. The cheesy PG-13 shtick of the likes of A Night At the Roxbury is here replaced by explosions, throat ripping, and a fascination with human reproductive organs. Vulgar, but not necessarily offensive, MacGruber may be more brilliant than it initially lets on. And it will definitely make you think twice about celery.

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