‘MacGruber’ succeeds where most SNL adaptations fail

by Bill Wine
Posted 1/22/21

Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.

Ah, seven-minute Saturday Night Live TV sketches adapted …

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‘MacGruber’ succeeds where most SNL adaptations fail


Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.

Ah, seven-minute Saturday Night Live TV sketches adapted into full-length feature films.

Sometimes we get movies that the public embraces, like “Wayne's World or “The Blues Brothers,” and occasionally an admirable but underappreciated effort like “The Coneheads.”  But more often than not, we get sorry and soggy misses “It's Pat” or “Superstar“ or “Stuart Saves his Family“ or “The Ladies Man” or “A Night at the Roxbury.”

“MacGruber” (2012) was among the latest comedies to spring from the Not Ready for the Big Screen launching pad, and let's just say that expectations were not exactly sky-high.

That made it even more of a surprise to report that, while this spoof was not exactly an award-winning triumph, neither was it anywhere near the disaster of us some anticipated or predicted. 

Will wonders never cease.

It's a lampoon of the television series, MacGyver, which starred Richard Dean Anderson, who does not contribute a cameo.  Will Forte stars as the hapless, mullet-wearing savior who tries to pull off miraculous last-moment rescues by making overachieving use of commonplace household implements.

Detractors and cynics feared that this thrust, pretty much the sum total of the TV sketch, would be pulled out incessantly over the course of a feature-length film, but that is -- gratefully -- not the path taken here.  In fact, it's employed only once.

In the film's plot, MacGruber, a former Green Beret, Navy SEAL, and Army ranger, is summoned from the South American monastery he has retired to by a general played by Powers Boothe to track down the criminal maniac who has stolen a nuclear warhead.  And why should MacGruber come out of retirement?  Because the psychopathic billionaire looking to wreak nuclear havoc, played by Val Kilmer, is the same dastardly villain who murdered MacGruber's bride, played by Maya Rudolph, on their wedding day. 

MacGruber attempts to assemble a team of crackerjack operatives, a plan which, well, blows up in his face.  Instead, he recruits Kristen Wiig as an ex-partner and aspiring songwriter and Ryan Phillippe as a severely inexperienced, by-the-book soldier of misfortune. 

This bit -- and that's really what it started as, a "bit" -- first aired in 2007, starring Forte as the one-note idiot hero who never quite saves the day, never quite defuses the bomb, and is always blown to, um, bits at the last second, along with his misguidedly trusting colleagues, just as the brain-fryingly familiar theme music cues.

The writer and director is Saturday Night Live writer-director Jorna Taccone, who co-wrote the action-parody script with John Solomon and Forte and who has nursemaided this project from its late-night-TV inception.  He and his collaborators have not only managed to achieve superior production values, but also added quite a few colors to the protagonist's profile.  On the big screen, MacGruber is not only inept, he's also cowardly, compulsive, stupid, prejudiced, vindictive, petty, narcissistic, and sexist.  Quite a guy.

It's now a nostalgic and raunchy action spoof -- trotting out words and gags on the big screen, including the villain's dangerous-to-even-say last name, which would never pass censorship muster on the small screen -- that both parodies and pays backhanded homage to eighties action franchise launchers like “Die Hard,” “Lethal Weapon,” and “First Blood (Rambo).”  And it gets considerable comic mileage out of all the action-flick conventions and excesses, including plenty of macho posturing, while sprinkling the kind of juvenile but admittedly funny wordplay that knocks 'em dead on the middle-school playground.

Not to mention several knee-slappingly hilarious and memorable sight gags.

Forte more than holds his own and he's matched every step of the way by the remarkably versatile and adroitly funny Wiig.  Meanwhile, the supporting ensemble of Kilmer, Phillippe, and Boothe play it deliciously deadpan -- a la Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves, and Lloyd Bridges in “Airplane!” -- to rib-tickling comic effect.

Call it an enjoyably giggly and explosively funny, R-rated lark.  Surprise, surprise: “MacGruber” is  a MacGrabber.

Bill Wine is an Emmy-winning film critic who served in that capacity for WTXF and KYW Newsradio. He lives in Chestnut Hill.