Will Forte's MacGruber is, in some painfully obvious ways, the antithesis of your classic secret agent: he's neither stealthy nor deadly, he prefers malfunctioning DIY contraptions to the cool technical efficiency of guns, he's ineffectual in nearly every way possible, and he's ugly (unless faintly hipster-ized construction workers are your thing). In other ways, however, he's your garden variety action hero: he has a revenge-driven backstory, he has a team of sidekicks (two, in fact), he drives a sporty (albeit outmoded) car, he walks and runs away from exploding buildings in slow-motion, he has a difficult relationship with authority. Certainly, the often self-serious spy genre is fertile ground for parody, as Austin Powers proved over a decade ago and Team America demonstrated more recently, but these precedents don't justify MacGruber's mission so much as testify to his tardiness.
MacGruber is a 90s man in the literal sense that he has been in hiding in Ecuador since 1999, when he faked his death after his wife was killed by his nemesis, Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer doing Steven Segal poorly, if such a thing is possible). But his genetic makeup is also a pastiche of pre-millenial TV's working class sort-of-funny-men: equal parts Al Borland from Home Improvement's "Tool Time," Drew Carey's buffoon buddy Oswald Lee Harvey, Joe Rogan's fixer-upper from News Radio and another late-to-the-party SNL disaster, Joe Dirt. Brought back to the Pentagon by Col. James Faith (Powers Boothe) when Cunth steals a nuclear warhead, MacGruber spars and then teams up with his post-millenial replacement Lt. Dixon Piper (poor Ryan Philippe), a tactical, gun-happy, straight-laced military academy grad. Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig), the only remaining member of MacGruber's former squad after his homemade explosives blow the rest up, is your increasingly typical SNL female non-entity, an irritating woman-child for him to humiliate and eventually make very unpleasant love to. (All supporting characters, you'll also notice, have pornstar names.) In the end MacGruber is very similar to the super-spy ancestors he's ostensibly satirizing, but decorated with myriad blue-collar signifiers: his flannel shirt, his dirty blond mullet and unkempt beard, the car cassette player he takes into every not-so-covert op, the watery red state beer he swigs with the label perfectly turned towards the camera. All this working-class camo can't quite disguise the strict action movie formula being enacted.
Which is a shame, because there's a certain appeal to this idea of the crass, proletariat super-spy anti-hero, a James Bond by way of Bakhtin, Jason Statham for the rural South. All that potential goes untapped, however, in this epically unfunny aggrandizing of the same-named SNL character by Forte and co-writers John Solomon and Jorma Taccone (who directs, barely). Shot by Brandon Trost with genre-appropriate perpetual panning, liberal lens flaring and confusingly over-choreographed action sequences, MacGruber is at least less visually unpleasant than other typically uncinematic SNL films. This visual verve and the occasional zinger make for the few passable moments in this not just disappointing but downright regressive self-destructing satire. For all its 90s costuming and decade-appropriate top 40s scoring, MacGruber's class politics are much more 80s, an unstated theme that a glowing portrait of Ronald Reagan in Col. Faith's office betrays. Such are the shortcomings of MacGruber's mission to unsettle the slick spy film genre, another sure-to-be-forgotten entry in the SNL movie cannon, a special-ops satire too flimsy to venture behind enemy lines.