The trailer for the new Taran Killam helmed action comedy “Killing Gunther” looked like an opportunity to watch an action icon introduce some levity into his normal shtick, with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Gunther” featured heavily throughout the two-and-a-half-minute commercial. With witty one-liners, plentiful explosions, and Schwarzenegger’s smiling face abutting each shot of the rest of the ensemble cast, one could be forgiven for thinking that the movie follows Gunther’s exploits throughout, which makes sense, seeing as Schwarzenegger is a legitimate action star with pretty solid comedy chops. Unfortunately, that’s not the movie we ended up with.
Instead, “Killing Gunther” feels a lot more like an SNL sketch that just doesn’t know when to end. Not only does the film not follow Schwarzenegger like the trailer would lead you to believe, but the Governator doesn’t even show up on-screen until well into the third act of the film. The rest of the time, we’re left with a cast of SNL alums Killam and Bobby Moynihan, along with a few unrecognizable actors like Amir Talai, who plays “Izzat,” an Islamic fundamentalist that has a robot arm because he lost his helping a fellow terrorist put on his suicide vest… if the humor in that characterization is lost on you, you’re not alone.
Hannah Simone (who some of you may recognize from the show “New Girl”) also plays a Muslim assassin, though her character isn’t intended to be driven by religious fanaticism like Izzat’s. Don’t worry though, the film still goes far out of its way to present her religion and culture as incongruous with the American way of life, as her father (also a killer) encourages her assassin ways, but then chases her male suitors away with a comical sword as a recurring gag throughout the film. Yes, that means a solid portion of this movie is devoted almost entirely to finding the humor in religious fanaticism, whether that’s suicide bombings or “honor killings.” Real wacky stuff.
To be fair to Killam, who wrote, directed, and starred in the film, it does have a few genuinely funny scenes, but they don’t really start showing up until two thirds through the film when you finally get to see Gunther. Yeah, the only character on the poster for the movie is actually in the movie for about 15 minutes, and you’ll have to weather the storm of awkward jokes falling flat for more than an hour before you get there, but to be honest, the scenes Schwarzenegger is actually in are downright entertaining. It really makes you wish you could see the movie they sold you in the trailer – one about Gunther – because his character, and Schwarzenegger’s portrayal of it, are both pretty damn funny.
Killam, whose character “Blake” is the movie’s actual main character, spends the movie trying to kill Gunther to prove that he’s the best assassin on the planet, but then it’s revealed that he actually wants to kill Gunther because he stole his girlfriend at some point… ultimately, the movie never really seems to decide which clichéd plotline it wanted to rehash, so it sort of halfway invests in each and just assumes you don’t care enough to truly get invested in his “hero’s journey.” His character arc is never fulfilled, and neither is anyone else’s.
Gunther isn’t the only good part of the film. Bobby Moynihan is disarmingly funny in many of his scenes, but just like during his tenure on Saturday Night Live, his comedy works best as a part of a larger sketch, and when left to stand on its own, it often feels a little forced. Killam portrays a desperate man trying to maintain a James Bond like demeanor, and does so pretty effectively throughout – but his ability appear aloof while fraying at the edges didn’t offer much in service to the plot, the action, or the comedic effect in any of the scenes.
My review of this film may seem a bit harsh, and that may be due to the way it was marketed. Had I known that I was signing up for an extended Saturday Night Live skit, I probably would have come in with an understanding that there would be some dull pauses and awkward beats – but the marketing for this movie suggested that I’d be coming along with one of my favorite action stars as he makes jokes and kills assassins. To be fair, when he does do that, this movie is genuinely funny and entertaining… for all of about ten minutes, before shifting into an oddly emotional tone between the assassin team that felt like a forced infusion of drama into a story that had, until that point, not taken itself seriously.
The action sequences are also disappointing for the most part. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen most of the action – which usually revolves around an explosion in the background and Killam’s cast of assassins responding to the noise in wacky ways. Admittedly, one night vision scene demonstrates that Killam and crew probably got about an hour’s worth of firearm and house clearing training prior to shouting action, so at least they don’t flag one another with their firearms as often for a few minutes while they try to get serious about their killing.
Writing a story or a screenplay usually calls for a main character to go on what is sometimes called a “hero’s journey.” Our protagonist starts the movie somewhere, experiences an inciting incident that propels him into the plot, then as the story unfolds, the character experiences growth, and ultimately, completes some sort of challenge to emerge a changed man. That sort of character arc is found in nearly every film… but this one. In fact, there really isn’t a single character arc to be found throughout, which makes sense in a sketch comedy show, but leaves the viewer feeling a bit lost in a feature-length movie.
If you’re looking for a fun action movie about assassins trying to kill each other that you don’t really have to think too hard about, skip this movie and go watch “Smoking Aces” again. If you’re a big fan of Saturday Night Live, you might have a better time with “Killing Gunther” than I did. For the rest of us, do yourself a favor and just watch the parts Arnold Schwarzenegger is in when some punk kid inevitably uploads them to YouTube. Arnold is awesome in this movie, for all ten minutes he’s in it.
Images courtesy of Folktale Productions