The Saturday Night Live skit about a low-rent, less-smart MacGyver gets the full feature treatment in MacGruber, a refreshingly not-awful example of the skit-to-movie phenomenon.
Who is MacGruber? If Kid Rock had a not particularly talented, not particularly bright older brother who went back in time to 1984 to sell, let’s say, used Trans-Ams and Members Only jackets, he would be a slightly more together-seeming guy than MacGruber. MacGruber is that guy, minus some common sense plus some unearned bravado and a backstory that includes service in the elite of every military branch and a tendency to eschew guns for gadgets made of push pins and tennis balls.
Like all good “bring him back for one last mission” stories, MacGruber’s starts when military muckety muck Col. James Forth (Powers Boothe) digs MacGruber out of the South American village where he’s been laying low since the hilarious, er, tragic, wedding-day murder of his wife Casey (Maya Rudolph) by a villain named Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer), a name to strike fear into the hearts of copy editors and radio producers everywhere. MacGruber assembles a team of rough-and-tumble “American heroes,” as he calls the guys he gathers in a van with his cache of homemade explosives, ready to take on the dastardly Cunth.
Perhaps you’ve seen the trailer and know what happens with that van?
MacGruber’s second team consists of Viki St. Elmo (a perfectly blue-eye-shadowed and Farrah-haired Kristen Wiig) and Lt. Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillippe), the Army minder for whom he has instant and pointless dislike. At every turn, Piper advocates a stealthy and precise plan of action devised to take advantage of the element of surprise. MacGruber prefers the opposite.
MacGruber takes place in some version of the present day but is designed to perfectly reference the 1980s — not the actual 1980s, per se, but the 1980s created in action movies and in TV shows like MacGyver. There is a Cold War feel. There is some delightfully awful 1980s adult contemporary music mixed with a bombastic score that Michael Bay can only dream of. Viki St. Elmo — right down to her name — is pitch-perfect the female sidekick. You only see a few shots of her working on her music on an electric piano, but they make her character. Cunth is exactly the kind of pony-tailed evil-doer you’d expect to be driving the plot in proto-Die Hard.
And, a word about Val Kilmer — way to lean into the fall, Mr. Kilmer. Some actors might fight against being made into a ridiculous cartoon of themselves, might not want to be spray-tanned and oiled to play the latest lunatic villain. But he seems to have decided to be the best crazy-eyes villain he can be. To let no moss grow on his flamboyant-John-Travolta-ness. To go the full Ray Liotta.
Sure, MacGruber, like many a skit-to-movie translation, drags at times The joke isn’t one that stays fresh for the whole 88 minutes. But it works often enough. B
Rated R for strong crude and sexual content, violence, language and some nudity. Directed by Jorma Taccone and written by Will Forte, John Solomon and Jorma Taccone, MacGruber is an hour and 28 minutes long and distributed by Rogue Pictures.