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What do you miss most about action movies from the late 80's and early 90's? Is it seeing a man face his enemies with only his wits and a never-ending stream of serendipitously placed objects? Is it the scenery-chewing pony-tailed or foreign-sounding bad guys? Is it the gratuitous mid-movie sweaty sex scenes that kept body-doubles across Hollywood employed? Or is it just Shane Black and Val Kilmer?

Whatever your brand of nostalgia, if you've ever tied a bandana around your head and sneered into a mirror or wondered how to create a commercial landing strip with just a pile of pine needles and a bumblebee wing, chances are you'll have something to connect to in MacGruber, a raunchy send-up of / homage to the action-adventure movies and shows of the 80's and 90's that provides knowing laughs in some places, and boring tedium in others.

It seems that 2010 will go down in history of the summer of the scruffy underdog team, with The Losers already in the bag and The A-Team and The Expendables coming down the chute. In that way, MacGruber comes at the perfect time, when we've been reminded of how an 80's style movie works, but haven't been beaten over the head with them.


In MacGruber, the shady villain Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer) has stolen a nuclear missile and the only man who can stop him is the celebrated former armed-forces special op, MacGruber (Will Forte), who went into hiding in South America after Cunth killed his wife on their wedding day. MacGruber assembles a team to do battle with Cunth (that's right, let's say it again), and when that doesn't work out he turns to non-master of disguise Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig) and young military-school graduate Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillippe) to stop the suggestively-named madman.

began its life as a sketch on Saturday Night Live that seemed to be a living testament to the kind of 30-second-joke-in-a-five-minute-sketch curse that kills so many good ideas on the show. The good news is that the movie version breaks out of the constraints of the sketch in a spray of blood, f-bombs, and bare asses that gives it an advantage right out of the gate. The unfortunate fact remains that, while its jokes hit more solidly than any MacGruber sketch, the move threatens to maintain a similar success-to-failure ratio to the SNL sketches.

The movie is less of a parody and is more just packed full of nods to the "Rambos", "Lethal Weapons" and "Die Hards" it borrows from. It stitches together so many references to period action-adventure movies and shows that it becomes easy to lose track after a while. Some subtle references slide right by, like the background music when things get serious, or the fact that one of the scuzzy bad buys is chewing on not one, but two toothpicks at the same time (doubly concerned about oral hygene).

MacGruber and his associates all live in an anachronistic world of Chevy Malibus and removable car stereos, but the supporting work of Phillippe excellently serves to ground the characters in the modern setting whether they want him to or not.

The supporting cast of straight men is, in large part, what lets the functional parts of MacGruber work so well. After all, you can't have the likable screw-up redeem himself to the audience unless he has someone to explain himself to in the movie. The most well-played supporting role of the movie would be Val Kilmer, who plays Cunth's annoyance at having to match wits with someone who's as inexplicably effective as MacGruber with hilarious perfection.

Like so many other SNL sketches before it, MacGruber falls short in keeping things moving with new jokes and energy throughout the entire exercise. The writers (John Solomon, and Jorman Taccone, who are both involved in The Lonely Island, along with Forte) have definitely studied their source material, but too much comes grinding to a halt so they can get some pesky "plot" out of the way. There are scenes that seem to have been written with the mentality that if they could squeeze in just one more f-bomb in with the storyline, then they could rationalize it as "funny". In some cases they were right, just not as right as they needed to be.

When taken as a whole, there's enough good material for a solid twenty-minute piece, and unfortunately most of that can be seen in the trailer. The jokes that have the highest chance of landing usually end up getting used twice, anyway, just to make sure that you're paying attention. I don't know if it means that I'm getting old, but when I see the second bit that has a guy with celery sticking out of his ass, it just doesn't do it for me anymore.

I have to say that I laughed at MacGruber. My initial reaction to the trailers was that the movie looked like it would be funnier than it had any right to be. In that way I was correct. Somehow, Forte and company managed to turn a skit that got tired after 30 seconds into a movie that packs at least a passable number of good, dirty jokes.

However, I have to say that if you want something about a likable screw-up that sends up the conventions of late 80's and early 90's action movies, and has Val Kilmer in it to boot, I'd instead watch Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, the 2005 film written and directed by Last Boy Scout and Lethal Weapon scribe Shane Black. It's a little wittier and a little headier, but still has some funny things to say about some silly, silly story lines.

Matt Sameck

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