“Killing Gunther” might not be the worst movie of the year — I haven’t forgotten about you, “Baywatch” — but it could go down as the most disappointing.
The film takes a talented cast and fun premise and ends up a leaden, misshapen whiff. It’s an action movie with no thrills and a comedy with few laughs, a mess that’s only seeing the inside of a very small number of theaters because of its “Saturday Night Live” pedigree and a supporting turn by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Arnold’s presence should theoretically be a surprise, but he’s been front and center on the film’s posters and trailers. There’s a reason for that: He’s the best thing in the movie, lampooning his action star persona with relish and walking away with the film’s few solid laughs. Unfortunately, he shows up over an hour into the 90-minute movie. Until then, we’re left with a cast of bumbling idiots whose welcome quickly wears out, exhausting a premise that can’t sustain itself past the first act.
“SNL” vet Tarran Killam wrote and directed the film and stars as Blake, an international assassin with a vendetta against the titular Gunther, the world’s deadliest contract killer. Gunther is taking up all the jobs in the assassin business, making it hard for people like Blake to line up work. He also slept with Blake’s ex-girlfriend Lisa (Colbie Smulders), making this grudge personal. So, with a camera crew in tow to prove the deed is done (oh yeah, this is a mockumentary), Blake recruits a team of contract killers to help him, including blue-collar explosives expert Donnie (Bobbie Moynihan), mysterious Sanaa (Hannah Simone), and Russian brother-sister team Barold and Mia (Ryan Gaul and Alison Tolman), who take the job so they can get a U.S. vacation. The killers are eager to exterminate Gunther, but it’s not long before he proves he’s on to them and starts taking out the team one by one. The result is meant to be hilarious but instead “Killing Gunther” is curiously one-note and dull.
Killam was one of “SNL’s” most reliable players in recent years, a comedian who can give a straight character a twisted edge or really ladle on the smarm; I was particularly fond of his work as an overly enthusiastic glee choir leader on “Community.” And there’s something funny about the idea of bumbling assassins trying to kill the big bad. But instead of finding a way to twist the idea into something suitably ludicrous and over the top, Killam saddles each character with a personality tic that he then beats like a dead horse for an hour and a half. So you have him as a pretentious tool, Moynihan as a fun-loving buffoon and assorted other assassins showing up to make quick quips before being blown up. It’s fun for a while but quickly loses steam as the premise runs out of jokes and Killam stalls for time until Arnold makes his entrance.
The mockumentary probably needs mothballed for a bit. In the right hands, it can wring laughs out of mundane situations (“Best in Show”) or personal foibles in outlandish ones (“What We Do in the Shadows,” “This is Spinal Tap”). For a while, “Killing Gunther” brings its hitmen down to Earth and milks a few jokes out of the very human flaws of these super-human killers. But after about 20 minutes, the bumbling gets old and we end up with “The Office: Rambo edition,” with stale jokes and crude gags punctuated by cheap CGI explosions and shootouts. This might have worked better as a traditional narrative that upped the ante with over-the-top action and gags. Instead, the pseduo-documentary format simply papers over the cheap budget, and the film meanders while Blake pines over his ex-love (Colbie Smulders, a very funny actor, who is wasted here) and the rest of the team farts around before being picked off (how a movie can’t figure out to do with the wonderful Tolman, so good on “Fargo,” is beyond me).
Killam’s Blake starts off as a overly cocky buffoon who turns into a heartbroken, whiny failure by the film’s end. The transition could be funny, but the film never finds the energy or motivation to make it work. Moynihan has a semi-sweet romantic subplot with Simone, but it devolves into typical “her dad is trying to kill me” shtick that is just never gels. There are action sequences and chases that could be funny or thrilling if they’d been competently filmed, or if they had enough money to afford anything other than Microsoft Movie gunshots and explosions (although there’s a robotic hand that gets some chuckles). There’s no real plot, just incidents that are intended to be funny but are instead airless and strained. It’s a three-minute sketch that never should have been a full-length movie.
Schwarzenegger, at least, is having fun. He shows up with an admittedly good twist in the third act and seems to have a blast puncturing his macho image. Gunther’s an ass but a charming one, and Arnold seems to be the only one who finds a tone between silly and serious that works. Unfortunately, Gunther’s gone quickly, and the movie gasps out a requisite and tired “get to the choppa” quip before it wheezes to a close.
My guess is the Australian Oak’s participation is what made this movie get made at all. So it’s a shame that the movie has no use for him until the movie has extinguished all goodwill and I was ready to turn off the screener. Arnold’s good for a few chuckles, but it’s not enough to save this messy, unfunny movie. My hope is Killam will deliver on the promise he showed on “SNL” in the future. I was hoping this could have been his “Macgruber”; unfortunately, it’s charitable to even call it his “It’s Pat.”