When I heard Arnold Schwarzenegger was doing a new action-comedy where he’d be playing the world’s greatest assassin, I was completely on board based on the premise alone. My expectations weren’t lofty, but there was no way I wasn’t going to see this movie. It hadn’t been heavily advertised, but I kept my eye on the release date and bought tickets for opening night. What I didn’t expect was to end up in the auditorium at my local indie theater where the rest of the audience were crew members on the film. That atmosphere cultivated an electricity in the air and watching the film with that level of enthusiasm buzzing around was an added bonus, but it was plenty enjoyable on its own merit. In a year where Predator celebrated its 30th anniversary and Terminator 2 got a limited, high definition, 3D re-release for its 26th, Killing Gunther is a welcome reminder of why we need Arnie on the big screen.
While the big guy obviously received top billing, this was definitely Taran Killam’s movie. He was a one man army on this project, writing the screenplay, playing the lead role and making his directorial debut. This could have very easily been a disaster, but he did a surprisingly good job for his first time in the director’s chair. Maintaining a coherent vision is much easier when you also write the script, but that shouldn’t detract from the fact that he did write a good script here. While it’s likely not everyone’s cup of tea, the screenplay is brilliant in its way. In particular, the exaggerated character design makes for a fun ensemble and a lot of laughs. The dialogue goes hand-in-hand with the oddball characters and is frequently off-the-wall, but this film isn’t pretentious regarding its sense of humor, so it works.
From an acting standpoint, Killam is responsible for carrying the burden of proof. While his performance will likely be hit or miss with most audiences, it wasn’t meant to be taken seriously and, if you accept that, it’s enjoyable. His wife, Cobie Smulders, is in the film as the distant ex-girlfriend, but isn’t really involved enough to move the needle. Beyond them, the rest of the ensemble was remarkably good sporadically and showed much more depth than anticipated. Bobby Moynihan surprised the most, managing to temper his over-the-top delivery with some moments of genuine heart. It was a good turn for his career and could open the door to a wider range of opportunities moving forward. Hannah Simone and Aaron Yoo brought a lot of life to their eccentric characters as well. Simone the prodigious daughter of a well known assassin and Yoo the poison specialist with crippling blood phobia. All the characters had their moments and it was the grouping of these personalities together which made things gel, but there can only be one king.
I will probably take some shit for this, but Arnold Schwarzenegger is a great actor. Since many of his roles have put the muscles in the foreground, it’s easy to overlook or dismiss his acting ability. Sure, he’s not De Niro, but he’s better than he gets credit for and he was as good as ever in this movie, if not better. Watching him cut loose and have fun with the character was something truly special to watch because his sense of humor is usually restrained quite a bit, but the biggest drawback was that there just wasn’t enough Gunther to go around. People will likely be disappointed if the walk in expecting to see an Arnold movie, but it works in this context because it allows the rest of the cast to make the movie theirs. Gunther was just so much fun to watch, you’re left wanting much more than you got. Hopefully, this movie will get some recognition and some traction so we can see some more of the hilarious titular character. Even if that doesn’t come to fruition, it would be great to see Arnold take on some more roles like this in the future.
Blake McClure shot this movie in a found-footage style that also felt a lot like the first person approach used in Hardcore Henry. It’s incredibly fast and there’s a lot going on but it works in conjunction with the documentary-film approach to the narrative. It lends itself to the style of the story and a traditional approach would have seemed very rigid compared to the tone of the script. Adam Epstein had a tough job tying it altogether in the editing room, but as a fellow SNL alum he had a good grasp on the vision. It can be easy to lose control of something like this in the editing room, but he managed to capture the key moments and trim the fat without ending too soon or overstaying its welcome.
We need movies like this as consumers and Hollywood needs them too. After a summer loaded with uninspired drivel and regurgitated sequels, the studios should have learned a valuable lesson at the box office with record setting lows. It’s easy to see that Killing Gunther was made with limited resources, but the project inspired a good bit of technical and narrative based creativity. This may be something of a bold prediction, but I could see this movie serving as a springboard due to its crossover appeal. Not just for those involved in the production, but for aspiring young filmmakers as well.
Recommendation: This is a must see for Schwarzenegger fans. For fans of Killam’s work on Saturday Night Live, this is probably right in your wheelhouse as well. And for those looking to escape the big studio offerings, this is a good way to do just that. Keep in mind, don’t take this movie (or yourself) too seriously and you just might have a good time.
Grade: C ( A for effort )