How much mileage can a comedy get from a single joke? Quite a bit, judging from the guffaws-to-groaners ratio in “MacGruber,” a raunchy, broadly played farce that may amuse — and almost certainly will surprise — even non-fans of the “Saturday Night Live” sketches that inspired it. With Will Forte in top form as a mullet-maned, lost-in-the-’80s action hero, and scads of R-rated dialogue bound to be quoted around water coolers and frat houses, pic should generate sufficiently enthusiastic word of mouth to be a more potent B.O. performer than most other recent “SNL” spin-offs. Homevid biz could be huge.
Fortunately for all parties involved, scriptwriters Forte, John Solomon and Jorma Taccone (making his feature helming debut) recognized the limitations of their source material, an ongoing series of “SNL” sketches that spoof — with, at best, mixed results — “MacGyver,” the 1985-92 TV actioner that toplined Richard Dean Anderson as an unarmed adventure hero who used brainpower, rather than firepower.
The “MacGruber” sketches never last more than a minute, and always end with a fiery (but miraculously non-lethal) explosion. The “MacGruber” movie lasts 90 minutes — arguably 20 minutes more than absolutely necessary — but manages to be much wittier while aiming at more varied targets.
Taccone — part of the Lonely Island troupe that has produced some instant-classic “Digital Shorts” for “SNL” — has joined forces with his co-scripters to affectionately parody not just a single Reagan-era TV series, but an entire genre of over-the-top, blood-and-thunder ’80s action pics. With all the gleeful abandon of Ritalin-deficient channel-surfers, they fast-forward through everything from obvious A-list titles (Sylvester Stallone’s “Rambo” sagas, the “Lethal Weapon” series) to made-for-video knockoffs, strip-mining the fertile ground for familiar cliches and conventions — wiseacre heroes, testosterone-fueled mayhem, belligerently snarky dialogue, bad hairdos, etc. — that, truth be told, were hard to take very seriously in the first place.
As MacGruber, a free-wheeling, trash-talking braggart whose arrogant self-assurance is only occasionally justified, Forte cannily distills the essence of Stallone, Mel Gibson and a dozen or so other ’80s icons while coming across as a sometimes doltish, sometimes deadly live-action cartoon who’s obsessed with avenging his murdered wife and protecting his removable car radio. The character may be an inconsistent conceit — a craven coward one minute, a skilled martial artist the next — but Forte keeps him consistently funny.
Teamed with a former comrade (a gamely flustered Kristen Wiig) and an inexperienced solider (Ryan Phillippe, ably playing straight man), MacGruber sets his sights on capturing — or, preferably, killing — Dieter Von Cunth (splendidly hammy Val Kilmer), an old foe who has gained control of a nuclear weapon, and whose name triggers some, but by no means all, of the pic’s coarsest dialogue.
That’s all the plot a spoof like “MacGruber” really needs — which is a good thing, because that’s all the plot it has.
Although the story obviously unfolds in a contemporary timeframe, the coiffures and costume designs have a pronounced period flavor, much like the ’80s golden oldies that clutter the soundtrack. Powers Boothe provides just a hint of wink-wink humor to his mostly straight-faced portrayal of MacGruber’s superior officer. But he is allowed at least one hilarious reaction shot during a scene where the aggressively macho MacGruber gets in touch with his feminine side — or, to be more precise, where the unabashedly desperate MacGruber offers to let someone else get in touch with his feminine side.