Arnold Schwarzenegger’s post-political movie career has been more or less dominated by action dramas, rather than action comedies. The Last Stand and Escape Plan were fun, although Schwarzenegger himself wasn’t particularly funny in them. And then came Sabotage and Maggie, a pair of so-so flicks that nevertheless found the Austrian brute successfully navigating some of the heaviest dramatic material of his career. On the docket? Reboots and sequels that will no doubt find him straining for nostalgia. What a delight it is, then, to see Schwarzenegger throw himself headfirst into Killing Gunther, an extremely fun, extremely stupid movie that offers up his best comic performance since his ’90s heyday.
The passion project of Saturday Night Live alum Taran Killam, Killing Gunther follows Killam’s Blake, a hitman determined to take out the assassin who’s undermined him his entire career, the titular Gunther (Schwarzenegger). He hires a documentary crew to chronicle the journey and expose Gunther, as well as a motley crew of nutjob killers to join him. Killam also wrote and directed the feature, so it’s no surprise that the proceedings take on a colorful, comedic tone and feature the likes of Bobby Moynihan, Hannah Simone, and Paul Brittain in the supporting cast.
(Ranking: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Top 10 Performances)
Killam does a nice job of tempering the film’s innate bloodlust with loads of cartoonish action and a slew of relentlessly over-the-top performances — Fargo‘s Allison Tolman is tragically underused as a Russian psychopath, however. Normally, the broad, performative nature of actors like Killam and Moynihan wouldn’t lend itself to a mockumentary, but here the vérité style isn’t used to conjure naturalism so much as it reflects Blake’s rinky-dink operation. The same goes for the film’s use of CGI blood, shabby special effects, and hilariously bad flashback footage; together, these stylistic choices allow the comedy to shine through the violence, while also giving Blake and his crew the feel of underdogs. Sometimes, the thing really does look like the final result from a Cragislist-sourced film crew.
But not all of Killing Gunther lands as well as it should. The humor feels inconsistent at times — when the crew finds themselves in Miami, for example, the filmmakers shoot a lame, reality show-style introduction to the airport that’s funny, but also never visually referenced again. There’s also an occasional disconnect among the characters, as their obnoxious personalities rarely lend credence to their supposed talents in the hitman field. Killam opts to feature them partying and improvising far more than he showcases their talents, a choice that becomes a bit grating after a while. That said, I could also watch Moynihan drunkenly sing Sister Hazel’s “All For You” at a karaoke bar all day.
But what about Schwarzenegger? If much of this review has neglected him, it’s because Gunther (wisely) doesn’t show up until the third act. And while sharing too much about his character would serve as a spoiler, know that both his presence and his ultimate goal elevates Killing Gunther from a mildly amusing dark comedy to a genuinely clever slice of meta-action. Third acts are always tough, but Killam’s introduction to Gunther ups the stakes tremendously, while also spinning the film off into a new and welcome direction.
Credit also belongs to Killam for not allowing his use of the mockumentary format to function solely as a gimmick. The documentarians within the movie are characters of their own, and their presence has a major impact on the evolution and culmination of the story. He also uses the convention to create some great shots, including a stunning, elaborately choreographed one-take battle and a fight scene that cleverly manipulates a trio of unmanned cameras without straining credulity in the manner of so many found footage flicks.
But really, the star of Killing Gunther is Schwarzenegger. Here he gets to be the villain, the action star, the comedian, and so much more. He’s in a tight, black dress at one point, and a pair of lederhosen in another; sometimes his grin lights up a scene, and sometimes his glower resounds as genuinely dangerous. Sure, it’s a bit much to have him knowingly quoting a bunch of his old catchphrases, but he’s having so much fun that it’s hard to care.