Let's get something straight: MacGyver — the 1980s TV show whose hero eschewed guns in favor of weapons fashioned from unusual or household objects — is immune to parody. Its semi-absurd premise cannot be made funnier; no matter what combination of everyday items is used to fashion the homemade IED, the payoff is never worth the trouble. And no matter how hard Saturday Night Live's 90-second "MacGruber" takeoffs try to milk some extra laughs from this Mr. Wizard setup, they never work, either, although the sketches themselves reveal, through their belligerent sameness, an odd conceptual integrity and purity.
When the MacGruber movie tries one final time to make the MacGyver idea work, it temporarily freezes in carbonite this unexpectedly bloody, sporadically funny farce. Fortunately, the film spends most of its time letting its cocksure, borderline psychotic hero roam free in the junkyard of action-film tropes.
Will Forte plays MacGruber as an aggressive, super-confident oaf who, even though he was presumed dead in 1999, is stuck in the 1980s. Colonel James Faith (Powers Boothe) calls MacGruber back into action because his old nemesis, Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer), has secured a nuclear warhead and plans on blowing up the nation's capitol. After an accident that kills off his first team of experts, MacGruber joins forces with Lt. Dixon Fifer (Ryan Philippe) and the timid but fearless Vicki St. Elmo (the invaluable Kristen Wiig). Much profanity, throat-ripping, appalling sex, and slapstick ensue at irregular intervals.
This is familiar summer-action movie territory. But there are two modern landmarks that distinguish themselves amid this familiar terrain, and MacGruber never approaches them in wit or invention. The film lacks the vicious, all-encompassing spleen of Team America: World Police. And when compared to a sophisticated, knowledgeable, technically astute satire like Hot Fuzz, MacGruber feels like a series of sugar highs, deflating its inspired outbursts with logy backstory over and over again.
MacGruber is funny on occasion, especially when it abandons its plot and sticks to its lead's oddities. But the jokes and setups always play like they're a draft or two away from really killing. In one extended scene, St. Elmo dresses as MacGruber and stakes out a coffee shop, repeating everything he says into her earpiece. Once MacGruber's mobile van is attacked, St. Elmo shrieks and drops to the floor, obediently parroting MacGruber's panicked wails and flailings. There's no comic rhythm developed in the cutting, though, so the joke gets some chuckles yet feels like it could have been tighter and more explosive with the right film technique. In other words, it's just like the other genre movies I've seen this spring, which could all march under a banner that proclaims, "Not that bad! But could be better!"