Remember when action movies were tough? Back before the Clinton liberals convinced everyone that a sensitive, ponytail-wearing, environment-loving “action hero” like Steven Seagal or a Frenchy like Jean-Claude Van Damme were worth watching, we had real heroes like Chuck Norris and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Nowadays, we have a lot less ass-kicking and a lot more wistful stares and “tough guys” whining about how they don’t want to have to do what’s necessary to catch the bad guys. “It’s too hard!” they whimper. “I don’t want to kill people, even if they did slaughter my entire family and kidnap the President of the United States.”
I’ve long thought this type of prissy “hero” needed to go, and it would appear the makers of MacGruber agree with me. It’s no surprise, then, that the elites in Hollywood torpedoed any possibility of success with an embarrassingly low budget ($10 million) and a low-key, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it ad campaign.
Sometimes, Hollywood doesn’t know what it’s getting into. As with David O. Russell’s terrorist-loving “war film” Three Kings (1999), the makers of MacGruber clearly sold their studio a bill of goods—the story of a liberal action hero forced out of retirement to work for the big bad “jingoistic” military. What they delivered was a sly, winking satire, and clearly the studio didn’t know what to do with it.
Rife with homages to classics like Predator (1987) and Road House (1989), first-time director Jorma Taccone (who co-wrote with John Solomon and star Will Forte) has a clear affinity for the world of Reagan-era action films. The narrative structure and action sequences are a deliberate, satisfying throwback.
It tells a straightforward story: when German terrorist Dieter Von Cunth (a deliciously sinister Val Kilmer) steals a Russian nuclear warhead, MacGruber is called out of retirement by heroic Army Colonel James Faith (Powers Boothe) and paired with steely rookie Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillippe) and doe-eyed vixen Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig). Their task: find Von Cunth and get the passcodes that will launch the missile. The film is loaded with bombastic action sequences that will keep audiences on the edge of their seats.
What separates MacGruber from both contemporary action movies and classics from the 1980s is the titular lead character. As MacGruber, Will Forte is a preening, simpering crybaby. His performance, and the way the character is written, mark a satirical masterstroke that’s surprising coming from former hippie haven Saturday Night Live. Evidently, the White House isn’t the only home to “change you can believe in.”
Forte (along with Taccone and Solomon) brilliantly subvert the clichés of the modern liberal action hero. When faced with imminent danger, MacGruber starts to scream, cry, and offer homosexual favors to anyone who might listen. Every word he says to his tough-as-nails military cohorts has the smug air of condescension, all the while taking credit for their heroics. MacGruber spends so much time explaining what he’s going to do, the Germans easily and frequently get the drop on him. He’s overly emotional, self-absorbed, and obsessively focused on petty revenge and jealousy, distracting him from the mission at hand. Heck, he doesn’t even know how to use a gun.
Perhaps the filmmakers’ strongest indictment of MacGruber is contained in his tangled backstory with Von Cunth: years ago, after impregnating his mulatto girlfriend (Maya Rudolph), Von Cunth intended to do the right thing and marry her. However, during the engagement, MacGruber repeatedly slept with her, then forced her to call off the engagement and terminate the pregnancy. Most appallingly, it never occurs to MacGruber that his actions and blasé attitude could have something to do with why Von Cunth hates him so much.
The film’s sole weak spot comes toward the end. After a wonderful moment where Dixon Piper finally stands up to his foolhardy superior, the film does a complete 180. Instead of fully committing to the idea of MacGruber as a shrill, incompetent symbol of what happens when the peacenik left tries to act tough, the filmmakers allow MacGruber to save the day—twice!
The writers try to salvage this misguided turn of events by acknowledging MacGruber only saves the day because of things he learned from Dixon. However, it remains patently obvious that a focus group filled with granola-eating Orange County teens forced the filmmakers to shoot a new ending that doesn’t quite fit the merciless satire of liberalism and the conservative values the film generally reinforces.
Despite its ending, MacGruber is a perfect date movie for any couple who loves the visceral thrills and right-thinking no longer found in today’s action spectacles.