Despite being panned when it came out in 2010, MacGruber has steadily grown as a cult classic over the last decade, and now feels like one of the very best Saturday Night Live films. Directed by Jorma Taccone, the film is based upon Will Forte’s MacGruber, a parody action hero. On SNL, MacGruber appeared in short sketches, most of which followed the same formula, but Forte stretches him into a really successful feature film here, thanks in part to supporting performances from Kristin Wiig as MacGruber’s partner Vicki Gloria St. Elmo, and Ryan Phillippe as MacGruber’s other partner Lieutenant Dixon Piper. Also in the cast is Maya Rudolph as MacGruber’s ex-wife Casey Janine Fitzpatrick, and Val Kilmer as his nemesis, Dieter von Cunth, along with a series of other comic cameos from the early 2010s.
Although MacGruber’s name derives from MacGyver, Forte’s character feels more like a parody of 80s action cinema at its most soulful and emotionally intense. In that sense, MacGruber is a distant descendant of Hot Shots, although it’s arguably a more loving and affectionate tribute than Charlie Sheen’s vision of action cinema, perhaps because more time has passed in the interim, allowing more nostalgia to flourish in the process. MacGruber is much more cohesive than the Hot Shots films, however, playing as an fully-formed film on its own terms, as well as a parody of the genre. While it does often feel like a sketch, it’s a single sketch that builds and expands as it goes, rather than a series of sketches, as can often occur in movies that draw upon the comic style and signature of SNL.
Above all, MacGruber nails the emotional gravitas of the action cinema, suggesting that no Hollywood product, before or since, has taken itself quite so seriously, or enjoined the audience to take it so seriously. Aware that this brings action cinema very close to parody anyway, MacGruber spends most of its first act playing things just a little too seriously, making for long scenes that could almost be plausible as serious action cinema. At times, it’s a bit like watching a lost film from the 80s, or a lost iteration of Rambo or Rocky, as Taccone opts for one shot after another in which MacGruber gazes intently at objects, or engages in procedures, and montage sequences, that are shot through with an exaggerated profundity.
For all the muscularity and weaponry of action cinema, MacGruber comically suggests that the most powerful asset that action stars had at their disposal was the stare-off, partly because this enjoined the audience to fix their own gaze on the screen in a similarly rapturous and breathless way. Virtually all whole dialogue here involves MacGruber getting up in other men’s faces, sometimes in aggression, sometimes in communion, but always in ways that foreground his gaze, and ensure that anything he says is accompanied by a comically extended staredown. As we move from one inane “unspoken” moment to the next, the register grows ever more sensuous, breathless and immanent, until the dialogue is pitched more at the intensity of music video, rather than regular cinema. It feels inevitable when these unspoken moments start to crystallise into musical mise-en-scenes, as when MacGruber first meets up with Vicki, playing a soft-focused synthesiszer in her living room.
Of course, this intense, probing, searching gaze can turn queer at a moment’s notice, or if inflected in slightly the wrong way. Part of the joke of MacGruber is how hard action cinema had to work to implicate us in this mystical male-male communion, while also making sure that it never lapses into homoeroticism either. For Taccone, the montage sequence is where this division of desire occurs, as evinced in a fantastic early sequence in which MacGruber rounds up his team after returning from retirement to fight Cunth. At first, he makes a few cursory overtures, but as the montage sequence proceeds, his dialogue vanishes, until all he has to do is look his old team mates in the eye for them to follow him. The montage sequence lasts a little too long, however, as the final meeting involves MacGruber locking eyes with his biggest and toughest contact, only to find their gaze disrupted when his old partner brings his new boyfriend into the picture, triangulating his mystical rapport with MacGrubor through this frankly gay figure in a wryly peremtory way.
Not only does this turn the montage sequence against itself, but it renders the band of brothers – the narrative vehicle for the montage sequence – untenable in turn. Moments later, they’re cursorily and comically blown up after some careless explosive packing from MacGruber, forcing him to double down with Vicki and Piper to tackle Cunth. Losing his team, and that network of mystical mutual gazes, also means that MacGruber needs to double down on his own name, which becomes comically oversignified during the rest of the film, always spoken as if it’s being read off a film poster, not unlike the sound of “Rocky” or “Rambo” in the later parts of their respective franchises. Everyone in the film double takes whenever they hear MacGruber’s name, as the audience are supposed to do as well, since his name seems to automatically confer his gaze, or invoke his gaze, forcing other characters into mutual reveries of each other, or his objects, whenever his name is spoken.
In fact, the second part of the film leaves no room for any characters other than MacGruber, as he forces Vicki and Piper to dress up as him in one scenario after another. In part, it’s to throw Cunth off the scent, and in part it’s because MacGruber is a coward. But you also sense that MacGruber’s ultimate thrill lies orchestrating his name and gaze among other people, spawning a series of spin-offs of himself that parody the very idea of a SNL film. Not only does this make the film funnier, but it moves it away from the static nature of a sustained sketch, allowing Taccone to capture the kinetic nature of action films in a really engaging way. All the tropes are here, from the stakeout at a factory, to the stakeout at a party, to the ensemble conclusion around a warhead, to the woman who gets between the two main characters and turns their mutual regard into the emotional kernel of the film. In the end, then, MacGruber not only parodies the action film, but captures how the action film could function as serious and self-parodic at the same time. It does so by also working as both parody and engaging film, which is where it exceeds Hot Shots, and perhaps why it was received so ambivalently, since its parody is always at some level self-parody, just as it encourages the audience to embrace and enjoy their own absurdity in the process as well.