The best, or let’s say closest-to-funny, joke in the 300 parody Meet the Spartans goes something like this: King Leonidas and his hopelessly outnumbered band of warriors wait anxiously for their first glimpse of the innumerable Persian forces advancing upon them. At first, Leonidas’ men see just a single line of maybe a dozen soldiers charging toward them, and the Spartans laugh with relief. Following that single line of Persians, however, are two men carrying a blue screen on which the single line of soldiers is projected, infinitely multiplied with CGI.
Not only is it a surprisingly subtle joke in a film that features a tap-dancing penguin tea-bagging the protagonist within its first five minutes, but it plainly illustrates what has to be one of the biggest challenges facing filmmakers attempting to spoof the modern action movie – recreating anything even approaching the flashy spectacle of a high-def 3D thrill ride on a fraction of the budget. So while the monumentally elaborate and narratively inconsequential stunt set pieces of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies or the incomprehensibly frenetic action scenes of theTransformers franchise might be overdue for parody by the next Mel Brooks or Zucker/Abrahams, if such a person even still exists, they would be stuck trying to pull off cutting-edge effects with far fewer resources.
Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s Jump Street films and Paul Feig’s post-Bridesmaids output have mined a few good laughs from the absurdity of the action film in its current phase, but the only modern trope most comedy directors seem capable of aping successfully is the over-reliance on post-Peckinpah slow-mo that’s been adding crucial minutes to movie runtimes for decades now. That’s at least as good a reason as any for Spartans’ flailing attempt at a Transformers parody, which – spoiler alert! – basically amounts to Ken “fat guy from Borat” Davitian in a polyurethane Halloween-store robot suit that doesn’t so much transform as project a YouTube clip of the “leave Britney alone” dude. (The film is already a better time capsule of 2008’s pop-culture detritus than it ever was an actual comedy.)
But the fact that we’ve reached a point where theatrical parodies costing millions of dollars are showing the audience YouTube clips in place of punchlines can’t be blamed completely on budget. Action movies are often laughably riddled with cliches, bad acting, and lazy, formulaic writing, but too often, so are the movies lampooning them. Spartans, written and directed by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, was the seventh movie from the team behind the Scary Movie franchise, as well as the similarly named Epic Movie, Date Movie, et al. – and they’ve released four (largely straight-to-video) parodies since then, including The Starving Games. These films are, of course, not to be confused with the unrelated and unfathomable number of “Not Another ___ Movie”s, an irritating trend that inevitably ate its own tail in 2011 with Not Another Not Another Movie.
Almost all of these films and basically everything Leslie Nielsen made in the last few decades of his career could be described as “the movie lampoons in Mad … jumbled together into one dumb movie,” which is how New Yorker critic Pauline Kael described 1980’s Airplane!. One of the many problems with this formula, as it rapidly approaches its midlife crisis, is that modern action directors and screenwriters also grew up on funny books, and – post-Last Action Hero and Scream – they know the audience is much more willing to forgive bad plot devices when they’re delivered with a wink. That’s a trick comedy writers were pulling back in Shakespeare’s day, but when genre writers refuse to take their work seriously, the lampoonists are left with little at which to throw shade. Films like Crank: High Voltage, with its decapitated Futurama head for a villain and rubber-suit monster fight, or Planet Terror, with its machine-gun-legged go-go dancer protagonist and testicle-collecting mad scientist, already play like inspired mash-ups of the weirdest parts of saner, duller B-movies.
Recent comedy-action films like Hot Fuzz and Pineapple Express have had more success by setting their satirical sights on the kind of action film made 20 or 30 years ago, when 3D movies were still retro and bullet squibs and exploding tanker trucks were enough to bust a block. Keanu, the box-office debut for the creative team behind Comedy Central’s Key & Peele, aims for a similar trick by concerning itself with a modern shoot-‘em-up, 2014’s John Wick, which is itself a throwback to the days when comic book movies were for kids and adults packed theaters to cheer on heavily armed antisocial loners with no sense of irony about it on anyone’s part. Fortunately, Keanu is less a straight parody of Wick than a riff on the very basic premise of a heartbroken man finding a small amount of renewed hope in his connection to a pet and then having that hope immediately taken from him.
Since Keanu is a comedy and not a miserable, bloody vengeance flick, its protagonist has just been dumped, not widowed, and rather than senselessly killed in front of him by burglars, his titular kitten is catnapped for being so irresistibly adorable. Rell (Jordan Peele) and his married friend, Clarence (Keegan-Michael Key), have no particular set of skills that might help them go on a retaliatory killing spree against the culprits and are instead compelled to attempt to infiltrate the Blips (the dreaded Blood-Crips collab) to get that damn cat back. “We think of this as, like, the most expensive kitten video of all time,” Peele, who also co-wrote the screenplay, said in a promotional interview for the film, but Keanu at least does something more than insert a meme-ably adorable kitten into boilerplate action film scenarios, by sticking closer to homage than to straight spoofs.
And by the way: The latest issue of Mad, in case you were wondering, features a parody of adult coloring books. Even their parodies have been updated.