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'MacGruber': Another 'SNL' big-screen misfire

By Tom Charity, Special to CNN
Will Forte plays the title character in"MacGruber," which is a parody of the '80s TV show "MacGuyver."
Will Forte plays the title character in"MacGruber," which is a parody of the '80s TV show "MacGuyver."
  • From the dozens of "SNL" spin-offs, the hits have been few and far between
  • "MacGruber," starring Will Forte, is a parody of the '80s TV show "MacGyver"
  • Two or three stand-out sequences aren't enough to make you forget mediocre patches

(CNN) -- "Saturday Night Live's" track record for turning mediocre, snarky skits into mediocre, snarky movies is only matched by the show's reputation for introducing the best and the brightest crop of new comedic talents.

From the dozens of "SNL" spin-offs, bona fide hits have been few and far between: "The Blues Brothers," "Wayne's World" and not much else. The reasons are obvious. A two-minute sketch demands the kind of shorthand that resists translation to the sustained dramatic requirements of a feature-length film.

A very broad parody of the '80s TV show "MacGyver," "MacGruber" wouldn't seem the ideal candidate to buck that trend. The sketches, which started up in 2007, boil down to MacGruber (Will Forte) attempting to defuse a ticking bomb with everyday household objects -- and failing.

The movie version is a significantly more expansive affair. Written by Forte, director Jorma Taccone and John Solomon, it kicks off with the theft of a nuclear warhead somewhere in the former Soviet Union, and it immediately signals its wider range with a specific two-fingered salute to Rambo.

Col. Faith (Powers Boothe) goes South, beret in hand, to plead with the much-decorated, decidedly off-the-map special operative MacGruber to come out of retirement and retrieve the weapon from the clutches of his old archnemesis, billionaire Dieter von Cunth (Val Kilmer).

This spoof might seem more cutting edge (or at least, less anachronistic) in a few weeks' time, after we've seen Sylvester Stallone's latest comeback movie, "The Expendables," and Liam Neeson in "The A-Team."

MacGruber rapidly reassembles his crack team of counterterrorists, but he hits an unexpected snag or two along the way.

Video: 'MacGruber' hits the big screen

Like Austin Powers and Maxwell Smart (and before either of them, Inspector Jacques Clouseau), MacGruber isn't the man he's cracked up to be. In fact, his counterintuitive intelligence is a menace to his own well-being and the safety of everyone within a five-mile radius -- except his designated targets.

His principled refusal to use conventional fire arms is part of it. So is his need to trumpet his own whereabouts to the enemy. But mostly it's the mixture of arrogance, incompetence and sheer stupidity that's so dangerous.

This ground has been covered very thoroughly over the years, even if you would have to go some ways back to find a character quite so cravenly narcissistic or so ready to debase himself. It makes you wonder why Col. Faith has any.

There are several sweet comic ideas here: The character's habit of taking his car cassette player everywhere with him for safe-keeping, the '80s soft rock he listens to in transit. But too often these gags are run into the ground. It's the movie's aggressively crude scatological comedy that keeps it ticking over.

Along for the ride, Kristen Wiig is amusing as MacGruber's lovesick sidekick, Vicki St. Elmo, an aspiring vocalist with a Farrah hairdo and no great aptitude for undercover work. Ryan Philippe is the pent-up Pentagon comer who keeps saving his new boss' bacon. Kilmer, who began his own career way back when in the underrated Zucker brothers' WWII flick parody "Top Secret," exudes an appropriately world-weary cynicism as Von Cunth.

But this is Forte's show, and at least it's a less shaky exhibition than he mustered with his previous outing, "The Brothers Solomon," when Will Arnett effectively steamrollered him.

Like Will Ferrell before him, Forte is prepared to go the extra mile to sell a gag, and if that means parading nude with nothing but a stick of celery for comfort, he'll be sure to work that celery to the bone. Unlike Ferrell or Mike Myers, though, he hasn't figured out how to make a less-than-admirable character empathetic.

Taccone (whose own previous feature was Andy Samburg's "Hot Rod") isn't one to pull back for taste and decency either. The film is mined with F-bombs and enough black comedy to make it seem edgier than it really is.

There are two or three stand-out sequences you might remember afterward but possibly not enough to make you forget the mediocre patches in between.