Say what you like about Gunther and his 50-year kill tally, he’s certainly earned his title as the World’s Best Assassin through sheer hard work, dilligence and commitment.
Not for him an Instagram account with pictures of chalk body outlines on floors, a #HitmansLife hashtag and a feeling-blessed emoji after another murder without legal consequences. Gunther is old school, and he’s deserved his retirement.
Ostensibly a cautionary tale about bumbling assassins taking on the best of the best, Killing Gunther is actually a cautionary tale about the modern assumption that one can (and should) achieve fame or infamy through a single act (preserved on film for posterity obviously); rather than putting the work in and learning through experience.
Gunther’s would-be nemesis is Blake (Taran Killam, also directing), another hitman, who’s set himself up as the author of Gunther’s demise for reasons that aren’t really any fault of Gunther’s. (Though before we start playing the Our Tune theme on a stolen Stradivarius, for a criminal with as many deaths to his name as Gunther it’s rather a case of being hoist by one’s own petard.)
For Blake this is also personal: “Gunther is maybe the most feared hitman working in the industry today. And he’s a fucking asshole”.
Putting together a group of assassins to kill Gunther, Blake also hires a film crew to record proof that they’ve killed him. Oh Blake, hubris is guaranteed to bring down anyone gunning for the World’s Best Hitman! Just ask all those black-clad attackers in John Wick, dead on the floor, waiting to be wrapped in clingfilm for disposal.
There’s some honour among Blake’s assassins, though not much: “I think Blake is the closest thing I have to a best friend,” says Donnie (a bouncily endearing Bobby Moynihan), an explosives expert trying to make Boom Boom happen as a nickname. But would you kill him, asks the documentary maker. “Yes I would kill him” replies Donnie, I mean Boom Boom.
Killer-for-hire Sanaa (Hannah Simone) is the daughter of a feared former hitman who simply wants to be recognised for her own skills. Her father’s a typical doting dad, though when he finds her in bed with a man, his threats to kill him should probably be taken more seriously than most.
Izzat (Amir Talai) is an “former extremist”, with a robotic arm, which – sadly for purposes of recharging – isn’t Apple-compatible.
Gabe (Paul Brittain, entertainingly irritating as a super-hacker who requires direction in everything else) considers himself Gunther’s Superfan, though he’s still desperate to kill him. Gabe’s like one of those Victorian collectors who admires the last living example of a species before shooting it and mounting it on a wall.
Pak Yong Qu (Aaron Yoo) is a master of poisons, though I want to know how he keeps his white coat so spotless while despatching his enemies. Scariest of all are Mia (Allison Tolman) and Barold (Ryan Gaul), tattooed Russians whose biggest success was “14,000 people, burned alive in a stadium fire”.
But my favourite assassin is Max. Bearded, dark-haired, sharp-suited, and with a line in overbearing testicle-related banter, he’s a cross between the aforementioned Mr Wick and David Brent, though sadly he doesn’t even survive as long as Daisy the dog.
The problem for Blake is that no one really knows who Gunther is, let alone where he lives. He’s the Banksy of the underworld.
And as they track him, he’s always one step ahead even when he’s taken two steps back to laugh at them. At one point, convinced they’ve shot him, they play back the footage only to find someone who looks just like Blake staring back at them: “Blake he’s got your face! He’s using your face!”
The team aren’t completely useless – it would be ridiculous if they were, individually they’re all accomplished assassins – but they are outgunned and outmanoeuvred by the invisible and far more experienced Gunther.
Blake’s blinkered approach doesn’t help. His ex-girlfriend (and ex-hitwoman) Lisa (Cobie Smulders) went out with Gunther, so his loathing is far more personal than the team realise. (I loved Lisa, particularly when she cries actual black tears. Probably mascara, and hence the most realistic cinematic weeping I’ve seen since the snot-filled sobs of Juliet Stevenson in Truly Madly Deeply, but also, I like to think, a metaphor for hitwoman wickedness.)
And Gunther is watching them all. Explosions, shootings, a snake (which after biting a team member, is blasted by four assassins at close range – a case of shooting the messenger if ever I saw one); all can be put firmly at Gunther’s door, leaving Blake’s crew constantly wrong-footed.
They could have called this Foreseen Deaths And A Funeral, and the funeral is exactly the send-off you’d expect a hitman to have – scary-looking attendees, all wearing black but without having had to change for the occasion. I’m guessing the murder rate plummeted that day, with so many killers off duty.
Schwarzenegger is only in it for a few minutes but fills the screen. I slightly cringed at first, but his Gunther is so incredibly engaging – giggling as he watches his attacks on Blake’s team work even better than expected, sad at his assistant’s accidental demise at their hands – that I gave the film an extra half-star just for him.
I suppose I was always going to love Gunther, someone who like me will go to extraordinary lengths for a joke. His disguises are hilarious, his childlike glee at his own ingeniousness a delight.
Arnie’s portrayal has an exuberance that makes him a joy to watch. (I love those older, class-act A-listers who’ve achieved so much they can now simply enjoy a cameo in a new director’s movie. Schwarzenegger looks like he’s having a ball, and even squeezes in a terminator joke, though admittedly it’s not a very good one.)
I’ll admit Killing Gunther is a film I wanted to be funnier than it is. Though there are actually lots of easy-to-miss jokes, plus some terrific throwaway ideas (sign me up now for Lisa’s new business offering erotic ceramics classes, making and painting clay penises).
With so many hitmen and women jostling for a clear line of sight, there’s little room for characterisation. And some of the short-cut photo montages are a bit ropy. Overall, Killam doesn’t quite pull it together, which is a shame. Maybe there’s too much extraneous stuffing, or maybe the average jokes swamp the real corkers.
And I’ve been holding off from this, but yes, it turns out I’ve been pronouncing Gunther wrong my whole life, or at least for most of this film – turns out it’s Goohn-tuh.
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