by Joni Blyth
“It’s just like a sketch stretched out for 90 minutes” – It’s an easy criticism of features created by Saturday Night Live alums, but if you spend all your life writing for four minutes it’s understandable that old habits die hard. Taran Killiam’s directorial debut hits all the marks of an SNL feature: grab some of your studio 8H costars to fill out a cast of broad bit parts, let them improv against a wacky premise that sends up a genre or two – oh, and don’t forget to rope in an amenable celebrity to leverage some star power. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t – for every Wayne’s World there’s a Ladies Man. Unfortunately, despite the incredible comedic talent of Killiam, Killing Gunther falls into the latter category.
If the film succeeds anywhere, its with its title character – although this ends up being its greatest downfall. Killiam expertly sets up Gunther as the bogeyman looming just offscreen. At times, Killing Gunther feels like watching a goofier John Wick, from the perspective of the incompetent goons trying in vain to hold back the bloody tide. As an unseen presence, Gunther is responsible for some of the most high-octane moments, and the biggest laughs as he toys with his hapless hunters.
Killing Gunther saves the best for last, as the great man finally reveals himself, and Arnold Schwarzenegger jumps into the fray. A fine comedic talent, Arnie kills it – but in the process cuts the whole film off at the knees. Killing Gunther would have been a lot more satisfying if this turning point took place significantly earlier, and it just feels like the fault of scheduling (and mega-star salary costs).
In his place, Killing Gunther is stuffed with unsatisfying gimmicks masquerading as characters. Some of them show promise, but we never spend any time with them before they’re shuffled offscreen by each other – or an untimely bullet. Killiam holds up an engaging thread himself in the lead role, becoming increasingly unhinged before our eyes as his team fall to Gunther’s superior skill, but excellent comedians like Hannah Simone and Allison Tolman are wasted in thin roles.
It’s still a great idea, and from behind the camera Killiam enjoys the mockumentary format, particularly during the film’s third act reveal. Killing Gunther does struggle in its action sequences, where the film goes to great lengths to ‘explain the camera’, often at the expense of the tempo. Momentum is lost every time someone kicks a camera into a convenient wide shot – it just reeks of a lack of confidence, like you’re expecting the audience to be picking holes rather than enjoying the scene.
Overall, Killing Gunther is a bloody mess. There’s some great promise among the debris, but this is less a well-executed hit and more of a sloppy drive-by.
Dir: Taran Killiam
Scr: Taran Killiam
Cast: Taran Killam, Bobby Moynihan, Hannah Simone, Cobie Smulders, Arnold Schwarzenegger
Prd: Taran Killam, Kim Leadford, Ash Sarohia, Steve Squillante
DOP: Blake McClure
Music: Dino Meneghim
Run time: 93 minutes