FILM REVIEW: Killing Gunther

The year is 2037. A pair of weary, ragged travellers enter a low-ceilinged supermarket. One has an unkempt beard that falls down to his naval. Everyone calls him Greybeard. His friend is unceremoniously known as Steve. The few working florescent light tubes hang precariously from cables, forming menacingly-looking shadows. The two drifters venture further in. They could be extras from Mad Max; tire treads adorning their shoulders as armour, threadbare long dust jackets caked with mud, blood and dust. Greybeard lifts his goggles and strains to see in the dimly lit dystopian Lidl’s. 1980’s horror synth music ominously plays in the background. Steve sees something in the produce aisle. It’s a tower of Granny Smiths, formed in the shape of a perfect pyramid. They’ve never seen so much food in one place before. They lick their parched, cracked lips. How could this bounty be left for so long without anyone claiming it? Tentatively moving forward, Steve stretches out an arm to retrieve one of the apples. Out of nowhere, a rubberised Arnold Schwarzenegger face bursts from within the pyramid.

“Surprise!” it screeches, lurching out amongst the fallen apples with speed. The two travellers stagger back as the screaming, robotic and disembodied head of Arnold Schwarzenegger on a small remote-control car flies at them. The travellers turn to flee, but it’s too late.

“Come aaaawn!” the Arnold head bellows, flopping about in the way a rubber mask does.  “I’m right here! Do it! Kill me! Do it naaaaaaaow!”

Greybeard manages to turn on his heels on time, retreating to the entrance of the Lidl’s store. Steve is not so fortunate. Having slipped on one of the apples that tumbled from the pyramid, he’s on his back, propping himself up on his elbows, scrambling away from the demonic miniature all-terrain vehicle, spasmodically spinning and jittering towards him.

“Steve!” Greybeard  sobs. “It’s a HK-101 – you’ll never make it!”

“Make a decision!” The unrelenting Arnold head cries, gnashing a set of metallic teeth as it rolls towards the man on the floor.

“Tell my wife I love her!” Steve shouts, “Tell her-”

“Bye-Bye to the PPI’s.” Arnold says in his thick, indomitable Austrian accent, before biting off one of his feet.

As blood geysers in an arc from the stump that was once Steve’s foot, Greybeard runs from the supermarket. He runs hard and fast, shaking the sounds of his friend’s screams from his mind. That night he will tell Steve’s wife what happened, and many years later he will tell his story, around a campfire, encircled by children and adults alike, enraptured by the deep tambour of his voice. He will tell them where this story all began, that when people looked back at the 2010’s, before the bombs began to fall and the crops were ruined, before the robot uprising – the people of that time were frightened and bewildered. These were a people, he would say, that were obsessed with celebrity to the point of stupidity, valuing hand held electronic devices that fed them constant information about the world over family, friends and relationships. He would also talk about a thing called The Kardashians, but that would always create a wedge of emotion in his throat. People loved them, he remembered – but for the life of him he couldn’t recall what they did or why people worshipped them.

“They were a stupid people,” Greybeard says, holding his hands up against the fire. “The city I once knew as home teetered on the edge of oblivion during those times. They relied too much on the cult of celebrity. The 2010’s were truly a disturbing time to live in. They had it coming.”

One of the children’s faces emerges from the darkness and is silhouetted against the flames. “We were told they had films in those times. What are these celebrities you speak of, Greybeard?”

From his long overcoat, Greybeard produces the burnt remains of a DVD cover.

“Kids, let me tell you about a film called ‘Killing Gunther.’ It’s a cautionary tale, so listen carefully…”

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Let’s cut to the chase. You’re either the type of person that has a raging hard-on for the walking bin-bag full of walnuts known as Arnold Schwarzenegger, or you’re not.

It’s that simple.

You’ll either watch his movies with a twinkle in your eye, reminiscing about the good ol’ days when Arnie could single-handedly take out an entire small army to save his daughter (Commando) or take down a Rastafarian alien in the jungle (Predator), or you’ll wince like someone who’s just been poked in the eye with a rusty hobo back-scratcher when you see performances like Jingle All The Way. It’s a Marmite situation, so I’m sure you’ve already made your mind up whether you’re going to see this film or not.

Since leaving his position of Governor of California however, Schwarzenegger’s movie career has dipped in the direction of forgettable action dramas such as The Last Stand and Escape Plan, which were mediocre fun films that had their own merits, but never really had that special something to create the lofty heights of his 80’s action days. There seems to be a suspicious conspiracy amongst aged Hollywood men that when they turn into senior citizens a contract clause they signed years ago activates a microchip in their brain that requires their arthritic, shambling shells to jump on the action bandwagon for one last ride out into the machine-gunning sunset.

If it’s a truth universally acknowledged that women in Hollywood over the age of forty often get roles that only allow them to play the narcissistic mother, or the hippy mother, or the ice-bitch mother and men over a particular age usually play cantankerous, resigned mentor figures, or old lecherous creeps that leer over their daughter’s friends. Or they can pick up a gun and play the ‘coming out of retirement for a personal vendetta,’ type of character. At first it seems Schwarzenegger chose the latter path, with Sabotage, and then more serious roles with Maggie and Aftermath, which found him successfully navigating some of the heaviest dramatic material of his career. But there’s also been the reboots and derivative sequels of The Terminator franchise, which has made even the most die-hard fan strain under the ongoing pressure of meta nostalgia. Schwarzenegger seems to know that he’s riding on a gravy train of this nostalgia with his past films, and seems happy to lend his voice and likeness to PPI commercials, but also gets involved in film projects that exacerbate his own self-deprecation. In Killing Gunther you’ll see the man mountain singing country music, posing in lederhosen (and a tight black dress) and yeah, it’s a bit much to have him knowingly quoting a bunch of his old catchphrases, but he seems to be having a blast with it, so we go along for the ride with him.

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Unfortunately, Schwarzenegger doesn’t show up until more than an hour into this relentlessly unfunny comedy, and by then, viewers may switch off long before he arrives to play the eponymous role of Gunther,  the best hit-man and assassin out there in the field. The film is the directorial debut of former Saturday Night Live performer Taran Killam, who also wrote the screenplay. Killam plays Blake, a career assassin who makes it his personal mission to find and kill Gunther – at first for establishing his own reputation in the world of contract killers, but we soon discover he has more of a personal motive since his ex-girlfriend (Cobie Smulders, Killams’ real-life spouse) had a fling with Gunther after they broke up. There’s an inherent feeling running throughout Killing Gunther that Killam requested scenes to be filmed in an improvisational way – but the humour is erratic at the best of times and starts to irritate and grate: if your brand of funny comes in the ‘let’s shout a lot with the clunky dialogue and hope people will laugh,’ then you’ll feel right at home here.

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Kilam’s Blake starts the mockumentary by rounding up a special crew to assist him killing Gunther, a roster of assassins with quirky traits and personalities that include a blundering explosives expert (fellow SNL comedian Bobby Moynihan); a deadly female sharpshooter (Hannah Simone) with an overprotective father, a tech ops whiz (Paul Brittain) that fails to bring the ‘whiz’; a freedom fighter with a cybernetic arm (Amir Talai), a poison specialist (Aaron Yoo) that throws bottles of venom phials during shootouts and pukes at the sight of blood and a pair of Russian siblings (Ryan Gaul, Allison Tolman) that mainly bang their fists a lot. Blake also hires a film crew under duress, stating that unless they record and document everything, they’ll be killed.

There’s great comedic potential here with the ensemble cast, and in particular Moynihan, Tali and Yoo stand out as the memorable characters within the bunch of killers, but the broad characterisations in general leave little for the audience to grow attached to. As Gunther starts offing them one by one, I felt that Killam missed a trick and could have sacrificed other ‘plot device’ characters like the tech ops specialist, as he didn’t bring so much to the end product, and instead should have explored the poison guy, or the explosives guy – or even the Russian siblings. Killam uses the tried formula of the mockumentary-camera style of shooting and injects some life into this beaten style of film making during one scene in particular though, an elaborately choreographed one-take fight scene, that cleverly uses three cameras with subtle cuts to create an action packed finale. Sadly this is marred by the post-production blood, muzzle flash and bullet ricochet effects that seem to have been made with a shoe-string budget. I know it costs more to have blood squibs onset, and maybe this is just a personal bugbear of mine, but when I see a poorly generated bazooka missile zooming across the screen, or a suspiciously whiffy green-screen boat explosion, it kind of disconnects me from the picture.

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The main hook of Killing Gunther, however, is Schwarzenegger. Once Arnie shows up, it feels like the movie starts to shift out from second gear. His mere presence and comedic timing has improved with age, so forget about Jingle All the WayJunior and Kindergarten Cop – Schwarzenegger seems to be having a ball with the role of Gunther and it’s almost like he’s wryly smirking at us and asking for us to get involved with all the meta self-deprecation with him, too. Whatever scheduling conflicts or logistical clashes (or money issues) kept the main man from appearing until the last act, tarnishing the whole product as a result, when he does show up, Killing Gunther actually becomes an enjoyable film. Unfortunately, it’s the first hour that people will need to trawl through to get there, and regrettably it may well be the case that people will be saying Bye-Bye to Killing Gunther instead of the PPI’s.

Killing Gunther will be available to watch on Digital Download from 2nd April and can be bought here: https://itunes.apple.com/gb/movie/killing-gunther/id1351913333?at=1001lnNr

2 OUT OF 5

 REVIEW BY ANTHONY SELF

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