Tuesday, May 25, 2010


"The Producers" director Mel Brooks took the traditional white Hollywood western down an entirely different trail with this audacious 93-minute slapstick horse opera. "Blazing Saddles" (**** out of ****) stands every convention and cliché in the corral on their respective heads and then gives the genre a boot in the butt. Were you to start watching this western satire and not realize that it was a crude, rude, lowbrow comedy with lots of one-liners, vaudeville routines, campy shticks, sight gags, dopey imitations and comic anachronisms, you might either be appalled or outraged by the intolerance toward African-Americans, minorities in general, and homosexuality. Indeed, when "Blazing Saddles" came out in 1974, during the heyday of blaxploitation cinema--you know "Shaft" and "Super Fly"--use of the derogatory epithet N-word still wasn't considered as politically insensitive as in our current multi-cultural society. Moreover, the epithet "faggot" was used, too.

Brooks has said that his lowest common denominator western spoof "truly broke ground, and it broke wind." Mind you, the administrative suits at the studios cringed at the racial degradations as well as the wind-breaking campfire scene where cowboy consume copious quantities of baked beans and break wind. One studio executive wanted Brooks to eliminate this scene and the scene where Alex Karras knocks the horse down, but Brooks refused. Initially, even Brooks had some misgivings about the campfire scene and approach studio executive John Calley who advised him to ‘ring the bell.’ The campfire scene didn’t alienate audiences, and "Blazing Saddles" emerged as one of the top cinematic box office hits of 1974. Basically, a quintet of scribes, including Brooks and future comic superstar Richard Pryor, appropriate the empire building plot about the evil railroad out to destroy a town in its way. The railroad runs into quicksand and their nefarious boss Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman of “The April Fools”) decides to destroy the town of Rock Ridge to obtain the right-of-way without paying a dime. Hedley dreams up a surefire scheme, “If I could find a sheriff who so offends the citizens of Rock Ridge that his very appearance would drive them out of town.” He persuades the incredulous Governor William J. Lepetomane (Mel Brooks) to appoint an African-American railroad laborer Bart (Cleavon Little of “Vanishing Point”) as an all white town’s new sheriff. Brooks and company couldn’t have made this oater at a better time!

One of the railway laborers, Bart, gets into trouble when Taggart (Slim Pickens of “Dr. Strangelove”) dispatches him and his friend Charlie (Charles McGregor of “Super Fly”) to take a hand car down the line to investigate the presence of quicksand. Indeed, the rails have been laid in quicksand because Bart and his friend sink into the stuff. The railroad foreman pulls the hand car out of the quicksand and leaves Bart and his buddy to die. Bart climbs out of the quagmire and wraps a shovel around Taggart’s head. This insolence lands Bart in jail with a date for the executioner, until Hedley decides that he has a better use for him. Indeed, Hedley realizes that he is breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience when he comes up with his scheme. “Why am I asking you?” He turns away from the camera and heads off to see Governor Lepetomane. As upset as Lepetomane is about Bart becoming the new sheriff of Rock Ridge, Hedley spins the situation so that it appeals to the governor. “Yes,” he assures Lepetomane about the egalitarian message it will send to one and all about his liberality, “the first man ever to appoint a black sheriff.” Of course, Lepetomane believes that he can only reap the worst of a bad situation. Hedley struggles to convince him that Lepetomane will win a place in history alongside Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln with his appointment of Bart as the Rock Ridge lawman.

A pimped-out looking Bart dressed in a leather outfit rides a horse with Gucci saddle bags. He rides by Count Basie and his orchestra on the plains as he heads to Rock Ridge. Meanwhile, the dutiful citizens of Rock Ridge have prepared a reception for the arrival of their new sheriff. No, they do not know that he is black. Gabby Johnson (Jack Starrett of “Kid Blue”), a send-up of perennial western character actor Gabby Hayes, spots Bart riding into town and tries to warn his fellow citizens that Bart is an African-American. A bell cuts Gabby off every time that he says the N-word, and everybody believes Gabby is saying, “The sheriff is near.” The townspeople are appalled when they see Bart. Bart ascends the platform and states, “By the power invested in me by the honorable William J. Lepetomane, I hereby assume the duties of the office of sheriff in and for the township of Rock Ridge.” Not surprisingly, everybody pulls a gun on Bart and Bart imitates them by pulling his own gun on himself. The whites put down this revolvers and Bart admires his talent. Later, at a town meeting, the citizens complain about Bart. Harriett Johnson (Carol Arthur of “Making It”) sums up the sentiments of everybody, “The white, God-fearing citizens of Rock Ridge wish to express our extreme displeasure with your choice of sheriff. Please remove him immediately!”

Indeed, the only friend that Bart has in Rock Ridge is a prisoner hanging upside down his jail cell. Jim (Gene Wilder of “Bonnie and Clyde”) surprises Bart when he identifies himself as ‘the Waco Kid.’ “He had the fastest hands in the west,” an incredulous Bart observes. Jim adds, “. . . the world.” Jim demonstrates his swift hands when he grabs a chess piece off the board before Bart can snatch it. “Well, it got so that every piss-ant prairie punk who thought he could shoot a gun would ride into town to try out the Waco Kid. I must have killed more men than Cecil B. DeMille. It got pretty gritty. I started to hear the word "draw" in my sleep. Then one day, I was just walking down the street when I heard a voice behind me say, "Reach for it, mister!" I spun around... and there I was, face-to-face with a six-year old kid. Well, I just threw my guns down and walked away. Little bastard shot me in the ass. So I limped to the nearest saloon, crawled inside a whiskey bottle, and I've been there ever since.” Jim gazes at Bart and inquires, “What’s a dazzling urbanite like you doing in a rustic setting like this?” Bart explains that his family came west as part of a wagon train. They encountered a Jewish Indian chief (Mel Brooks) and the Native Americans allowed them to settle because they were darker.

Taggart suggests that Hedley send Mongo (Alex Karras) to Rock Ridge to kill Sheriff Bart. Mongo rides into Rock Ridge on a bull, but he doesn’t stay out of jail long. “You can’t shoot him,” Jim warns Bart. “You’ll only make him mad.” Bart dresses up like a delivery boy and hands Mongo a candy gram that blows up in the big guy’s face. The next time that we see Mongo, he is tried up to the barred doors of the jail cell. Miraculously, Bart’s sneaky way of trapping Mongo impresses the strong man so much that he becomes Bart’s friend. Mongo points out that Bart is the only man who has ever whipped him. Eventually, Bart and Jim learn the truth about Hedley Lamarr and the railroad when they question Mongo. All Mongo will admit is that he is “only pawn in the game of life.” Meantime, Hedley decides to send in the voluptuous Lili Von Shtupp (Madeline Kahn of “High Anxiety”) to seduce Bart and lead him to his demise. Lili is the epitome of the female vamp. She invites Bart back stage to visit her in her dressing room after her big number. She sidles up to Bart and inquires if it is true what they say about African-American men. The next morning finds Lili fallen under Bart’s spell. She cannot live without him and behaves hysterically when he leaves. “What a nice guy,” she oozes. Hedley has one last idea. He tells Taggart: “I want rustlers, cut throats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con men, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswogglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass-kickers, shit-kickers and Methodists.” Our heroes—Bart and Jim—knock out a couple of Ku Klux Klanners and masquerade as them.

Just when everything seems lost, Bart proposes a plan to save Rock Ridge. When the townspeople refuse to listen to him, he observes, “You’d do it for Randolph Scott.” They let Bart speak and Bart’s plan is to build a replica of Rock Ridge that Taggart and his army of desperados can burn down. This is exactly what the townspeople and the railroad workers get together and construct. They build a false-fronted town like Rock Ridge. Jim and Bart slow down the approach gunmen by setting up a toll booth. When Taggart and his men storm into the fake Rock Ridge, they are almost fooled until Taggart kicks down a building that turns out to be a false front. A huge donnybrook erupts in town and suddenly Brooks drops any pretense to realism and we find ourselves on the Warner Brothers backlot. Hedley tries to escape from Bart and Jim and momentarily takes refuge in a movie theater. At the same time, the fight on the western set spills over to another set when Buddy Bizarre (Dom DeLuise of “The End”) is having trouble orchestrating a huge dance number with men dressed up in top hats and tails. The cowboys and the homosexuals tie into each other with hilarious results. Eventually, Bart tracks down Hedley in modern day Hollywood and guns the chief villain dead. Sheriff Bart bids everybody farewell, “Keep the faith, brothers,” and rides off with Jim. They pause at one point and dismount to climb into an El Dorado Cadillac and cruise away.

Incongruity generates the best comedy and Brooks directs “Blazing Saddles” like a profane situation comedy. The idea of a black sheriff sent to save a white western town is a stroke of genius. The Waco Kid is a parody of every reformed gunfighter and the joke is that he is so fast that you never see his guns leave his holsters. Gene Wilder is a revelation as Waco. The biggest surprise occurs near the end when a fleeing Hedley winds up on the set of a movie musical with queer guys galore struggling to perform a dance number. Alex Karras is hilarious as Mongo, a thug who knocks a horse down with his fist.


This "Saturday Night Live" inspired spoof of the legendary Richard Dean Anderson ABC-TV adventure series "MacGyver" (1985-92) has its moments. Trouble is those moments are few. Freshman writer & director Jorma Taccone with “Saturday Night Live” scenarists Will Forte and John Solomon display a conspicuous lack of wit. The moronic humor in “MacGruber” (* out of ****) yields lowest common denominator chuckles seasoned with an R-rated surfeit of F-bombs. For example, the only reason the dastardly Dieter Von Cunth has such an anatomical name is so the good guys can use it as often as possible without appearing profane. The gratuitous abuse of the villain’s surname quickly wears this joke out in no time. Again, the humor is largely tasteless, infantile, and ad nauseam repetitive. Although he is a highly decorated Green Beret, Navy SEAL, and Army Ranger, our hero amounts to a completely clueless '80s-style action hero. MacGruber turns into MacGoober whenever the shenanigans hit the fan. He uses a buddy as a shield from three men armed with machine guns because he is so pusillanimous. Rarely do MacGruber’s spontaneous improvisational acts pay off. Remember, the real MacGyver shunned guns and converted ordinary household items into weapons. Nevertheless, MacGruber lacks the charisma of either Steve Martin's Inspector Clouseau or Steve Carrell's Maxwell Smart. MacGruber is so colossally arrogant you feel no sympathy for him when he is reduced to soliciting oral sex. MacGruber qualifies as a MacIdiot. Basically, “MacGruber” ridicules the conventional of formulaic, high-octane testosterone-laced male actioneers. Unfortunately, it lacks both the outlandish budget and insane hilarity of “Tropic Thunder.” Unless you’ve seen the “SNL” skits about the eponymous champion, you may find his adventures rather bland.

“MacGruber” opens in Siberia after the villain’s henchmen have knocked-off a Russian convoy transporting the X-5 nuclear warhead. Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer of “Tombstone”) smuggles the X-5 into the United States, but he still needs the pass codes to fire the missile. In Rio Bamba, Ecuador, Colonel Jim Faith (Powers Boothe of “Extreme Prejudice”) and Lieutenant Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillippe of “Chaos”) track down MacGruber to a remote monastery where the retired special ops legend exiled himself since his wife’s death. Like John Rambo’s mentor Colonel Samuel Trautman, Colonel Faith taught MacGruber (Will Forte with an 80’s mullet) everything he knows. Well, everything but executing a back flip. MacGruber has misled everybody into thinking that he has been deceased for a decade. He has withdrawn from the human race. He considers himself a man of peace. Colonel Faith explains that Dieter has stolen a dangerous nuclear warhead and has it aimed at Washington, D.C. Predictably, MacGruber refuses to recover the warhead so Faith appeals to his sense of vengeance. It seems Dieter blew MacGruber’s bride Casey Janine Fitzpatrick (“Saturday Night Live” cohort Maya Rudolph of “Idiocracy”) to smithereens at their wedding. Later, we learn that MacGruber seduced Casey from Dieter and told her to abort Dieter’s unborn child. Ostensibly, this is the reason that Dieter kills Casey. When a gung-ho Lieutenant Dixon Piper pleads to accompany him, MacGruber turns him down and tells him off. Our hero assembles his own team of brawny heroes. Clearly, these muscle-heads constitute MacGruber’s ‘dream team.’ MacGruber slaps together homemade C-4 explosives and stores them in the delivery van with his trigger-happy ‘dream team.’ As our protagonist bids farewell to both Colonel Faith and Lieutenant Piper, the C-4 explosives demolish the delivery van and obliterate MacGruber’s ‘dream team.’ MacGruber runs around hysterically begging anybody to call 911. When Colonel Faith relieves MacGruber of the mission, our rugged hero begs to be reinstated, he even offers to perform oral sex on Lieutenant Piper. Piper rebuffs the blow job from MacGruber but agrees to join his team. Faith stipulates that the team must have three members. MacGruber recruits former aide-de-camp Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig of “Whip It”), and Vicki winds putting her neck as well as other anatomical parts on the line.

Like the typical larger-than-life, high-octane actioneer, “MacGruber” flaunts its share of blood and gore. MacGruber takes a slug in the thigh, and Vicki probes around with a pair of pliers before she removes the bullet. Initially, she wanted to have nothing to do with MacGruber’s mission. Vicki harbors horrible memories of MacGruber’s wedding to Casey. When Dieter blew up Casey, Casey showered her best friend Vicki with blood. When MacGruber found her, Vicki had embarked upon a career as a musician. She realizes that she cannot resist being around MacGruber and joins MacGruber. Consequently, MacGruber demonstrates his lack of courage when he dresses Vicki to look like him so she can distract the opposition. One scene has MacGruber dispatching Vicki to a dinner where Dieter’s people hang out. MacGruber relays orders via an ear-piece to Vicki about how to impersonate him from his inconspicuous van parked some twenty blocks away. Pugnacious Dieter minion Hoss Bender (Andy Mackenzie of “Shoot’em Up”) discovers them and starts blasting bullet holes in their van. MacGruber starts screaming in fear. Meanwhile, back at the dinner, Vicki hears the screams, grovels on the floor, and scream, too, as the patrons watch her without comprehension. Only later does she realize what a fool she has been and tries to make an unobtrusive exit. Ironically, this is the only time that MacGruber doesn’t screw everything up. Wedging a mop against the accelerator, MacGruber kills Hoss by ramming the villain with the van.

MacGruber and his team track down the bad guys to a warehouse rendezvous where Dieter’s man, Constantine (Timothy V. Murphy of “Green Street Hooligans 2”), has gone to buy to the pass codes. Again, MacGruber dispatches poor Vicki who masquerades as the bearded Hoss Bender. Another minor league shoot’em up erupts, but Constantine manages to escape with the pass codes and MacGruber loses again! Colonel Faith decides to take MacGruber off the case and MacGruber begs to be reinstates, hoping that the promise that he will give Faith a blow job will change everything. Faith turns him down. Eventually, MacGruber realizes the Dieter plans to use the X-5 to nuke both the White House and Congress during the President’s State of the Union speech.

Taccone stages several minor action sequences without flair. Guys blast away at other guys, but the violence breaks no new ground compared to the recent “Rambo” sequel. “Indecent Proposal” lenser Brandon Trost makes these low-budget antics look better than it has any right. Aside from one scene with an older woman posing nude to Dieter to paint, nudity is confined largely to our hero’s hairy belly and bare buttocks. If “MacGruber” had been made in the 1980s, the only nudity would be beautiful female nudity. Once during the action, Forte parades around with a piece of celery protruding from his bare buttocks as a way to distract the opposition. Later, Lieutenant Piper follows MacGruber’s example. After he has sex with Vicki, MacGruber visits his late wife’s grave and has sex with her as a way to relieve his guilty conscience. A cemetery groundskeeper watches in disbelief as the totally naked MacGruber has sex with an apparition. Of course, the groundskeeper cannot see Casey, but MacGruber believes that she is there. Taccone saves the best scene for last. Our MacGoofy protagonist finally triumphs over evildoer Val Kilmer. Not only does MacGruber transform him into a sieve with his machine gun, but he also blasts Dieter with a grenade launcher. Were that not enough still, MacGruber urinates on Dieter’s corpse. Later, he tries to defecate on Dieter’s remains in a body bag. Too bad the previous 80 minutes were not as insane and hare-brained. It is some consolation that the soundtrack teems with classic Top-40 hits from the 1980.