There’s something faintly depressing about several of the roles Arnold Schwarzenegger’s taken on since he returned to acting in the early 2010s. In some instances, the movies have been good but simply didn’t catch on, like entertaining action throwback, The Last Stand. In others, Schwarzenegger’s put in a decent performance in a movie that didn’t really deserve it, like David Ayer’s messy action mystery-thriller, Sabotage, or the sorely disappointing sequel-reboot, Terminator: Genisys.
In Killing Gunther, the Austrian Oak slums it as a legendary hitman who’s always one step ahead of his prey; a master of disguise and light on his feet, he’s often slaughtered a target and vanished again before the camera can even get a bead on him. This is the feature debut from Saturday Night Live’s Taran Killam, who writes and directs, and on paper, it’s easy to see why Schwarzenegger would want to take the title role. First, Gunther’s effortlessly cool and calm in a story where everyone else is completely inept; second, he gets to make the most of his comic timing; and third, he’s barely in the movie, so probably only had to work for a day or two.
An action-comedy shot in a shop-worn mockumentary style, Killing Gunther follows dapper hitman Blake (Killam), who resolves to assemble a crack team of contract killers to – you guessed it – take out Gunther, his rival and arch-nemesis. Among Blake’s team you’ll find Donald (Bobby Moynihan), a keen fisherman and explosives expert, Sanaa (Hannah Simone), a sniper from the Middle East with an overbearing father, and Izzat (Amir Talai), a former extremist with a robot arm.
Despite his chosen profession, Blake treats his murder mission like Ned Flanders on a Sunday school outing; he and his team’s complete inability to find Gunther, much less kill him, provides the source of the movie’s awkward humour. It’s not a groundbreaking idea, but it isn’t a terrible one, either; amid the shaking camera work and bickering, it’s possible to see the potential in a comedy about useless mercenaries – a kind of Expendables with laughs.
Regrettably, Killing Gunther has neither the budget nor the razor-sharp timing that made Spy such an effective – if scattershot – send-up of Bond espionage thrillers. Killam’s handful of action sequences are frequently peppered with suspect-looking digital bullet hits and explosions, or use obvious short-cuts to save cash: one rocket-grenade attack is glossed over with the use of a jarring edit. Another scene is shot entirely with night vision cameras, rendering it almost impossible to see.
The comedy doesn’t fare much better, which is surprising, given the Saturday Night Live lineage of the cast. For the most part, Killing Gunther goes for obvious gags based on stereotypes: a dorky computer genius who’s the butt of everyone’s jokes, or worse, the over-protective middle-eastern father who threatens to behead his daughter’s lovers with a sword. At best, Killing Gunther’s situations are forced; at worst, they feel amateurish, like the repeated use of appallingly-photoshopped photographs to illustrate past events.
The players that come out of Killing Gunther the best are the ones least used. Cobie Smulders (Killam’s real-life spouse) is perfectly fine in her handful of scenes, and of all the murderers crowding the frame here, Moynihan’s fishing-and-explosives nut Donald feels the most likeable. Most obviously, there’s Schwarzenegger himself, who shows up late in the movie to brighten things up a bit. He’s visibly too old to pull off some of the exploits his body doubles display earlier in the movie, but he still has that old Arnold charisma – his scenes aren’t necessarily side-splitting, but it’s telling that he makes such light work of them. Schwarzenegger fans should note, however, that the 80s action star is only in the picture for a scant 15 minutes – and to get there, you’ll have to sit through about an hour of misfiring comedy vignettes.
Killing Gunther isn’t a disaster, but when a comedy that runs to a mere 80 minutes still feels stretched too thinly, it’s a sure sign that something’s gone wrong. Too often, the documentary format feels like a crutch for a production that can’t afford much else, at least until the third act; it’s a world away from the darkly funny Creep, say, where the verite style was written into its DNA. Schwarzenegger’s clearly having fun playing Gunther – if nothing else, it’s a chance for him to riff on his old action man persona – but again, it’s a little depressing to see the former A-lister relegated to small roles in movies such as this.
Killing Gunther makes its VOD debut on the 2nd April.