“We’re here to watch, analyze, critique, and, most importantly, judge.”—Dennis Reynolds
“Oh dear god…”—Dennis Perkins, critic
Asking the Gang to solve your problem is like asking the five worst, dumbest, most self-involved people in the world to solve your problem. Not only is your problem not going to be solved, you’re opening yourself up to a rats’ nest of new problems you hadn’t considered, even in your worst, most feverish nightmares. That’s the fate of Pond5, the credited producers of the long-running, dong-hanging Thunder Gun action film series when one of their marketing representatives unwittingly hands out Red Lobster gift certificates to five random people walking out of a Philadelphia mall.
So Dennis, Mac, Dee, Frank, and Charlie find themselves in an empty screening room, fidgeting at the thought of sitting through what Charlie assumes is some foreign art film called Focus Group. (Charlie Day is is fine form all episode, by the way, Charlie missing obvious points with surgical comic timing.) Exploding in unified joy when the unsuspecting focus group moderator (Barry’s Jessy Hodges) tells them that the as-yet-unreleased movie they’ll be watching is Thunder Gun 4: Maximum Cool, the latest installment in their favorite sex, violence, and gratuitous nudity action series, starring, as it turns out in a series of handsomely mounted (yet appropriately cheesy) Thunder Gun clips, the increasingly game for self-parody Dolph Lundgren.
That reveal is a guaranteed laugh, although perhaps not as big as when we discover that Lundgren’s character is actually named John Thundergun. Apparently having unsuccessfully saved his love from that evil robot army in Thunder Gun Express, John Thundergun is now a boozy retiree from heroism, only lured back into action by a lady scientist and her younger assistant Max, with a holographic message from John’s old enemy, the dastardly Colonel Washington. Sounds like a winner, except, as the Gang gapes in horror as the final credits roll, the franchise has now been neutered into a PG-13 setup for a more youth-oriented series reboot starring Max who, in the film’s big twist, is revealed to be John Thundergun’s unknown son. “Did they make Thunder Gun bad?”, stammers Dee.
That’s the question that “Thunder Gun 4: Maximum Cool” asks of the revamped Thunder Gun 4: Maximum Cool, whether toning down what Dee terms the series’ “bed ’em and dead ’em” ethos (not to mention, no hanging dong) for today’s more theoretically enlightened sensibilities is a good or bad thing. Thus begins a subtle and nuanced discussion of the relative merits of visceral exploitation cinema and the evolution of audience taste regarding inclusivity and sensitivity in film. I mean, it’s not that, at all, but, like most instances where the Gang thrusts themselves into a hot-button social issue, their five-headed attack on the complexities of a thorny philosophical question makes for a slyly funny, filthy farce of good-faith cultural debate.
As ever, the joke is that the Gang (representing as they always have the basest instincts of the American people, or just people) adopts catchphrases, talking points, and whatever other gleaned faux-profundities they can in order to justify their own grimy desires. Thus Dennis couches his outrage at John Thundergun’s more sensitive approach toward women in this new film as “a civic duty” intended to “put a stop to this liberal, P.C. bullshit,” while skin-crawlingly putting the moves on the moderator (even though she doesn’t “thrill” him) in order to add to his own terrifying home movie collection. Frank makes a similarly high-minded appeal to the lost “sense of community” that going to the neighborhood movie theater used to engender, before letting on that he’s talking about formerly paying $2 so he could “pop off” in dark porno theaters alongside his fellow men all day. (“It gave you a sense of something bigger than yourself,” explains Frank to the increasingly mortified moderator.)
Mac decries the “Hollywood bullshit” of this new installment’s multi-racial casting (and no hung dong) by revealing that, in the past, he found it more comfortable to know exactly who the bad guys were because of race or ethnicity. Rejecting Dee’s suggestion of a French villain for Thundergun this time around, he demurs, explaining, “You will definitely dislike him, but you won’t fear him, because he’s most likely a pussy.” (Frank, as is is wont, puts things even more bluntly: “In the old days, good guys wore white, and bad guys wore black. Or were black.”) Dee, turned to in desperation by the moderator for the women’s perspective, admits that she loved the old way of Thundergun’s bedmates all winding up dead because they made her feel insecure while they lived. (“Write that down, ‘Women hate women,’” offers Mac helpfully.) Meanwhile, Charlie is just inarticulately hostile (“Fuck you!,” he snaps when the moderator called the Thunder Gun tradition of dong-hanging “gratuitous”), partly thanks to him not picking up on any of the film’s unsubtle plot devices. (“Wait, he has a son?,” goggles Charlie after seeing the scenes in which that fact is explicitly laid out for the second time, leaving the moderator to finally lose all semblance of her fraying professionalism, barking, “Fuck, man!” in disbelief.)
Airing as it does as the director of one new, controversially high-profile action flick is spouting the same old laments about “woke culture” killing real entertainment, “Thunder Gun 4: Maximum Cool” is at least topical. I’d say “timely,” but the same tired bullshit is trotted out regularly by white guys looking to pin the blame for their colossal media fuck-ups or flagging careers on those darn [women, gays, liberals, non-whites, “elites,” pick a target], rather than sparing any self-reflection on why, say, their retrograde sensibilities might always have been problematic, even when they weren’t out of fashion. “Listen here, you goddamned Hollywood communist,” sneers Dennis as lead-up to his rallying cry for the old Thunder Gun, “Give me dong, or give me death.” Meanwhile, even he has to correct Mac’s assertion that John Thundergun’s dick-swinging was never about intimidation, but about “kicking back.” (“He did do it once to intimidate someone,” concedes Dennis, “But he was the bad guy.”) As Frank puts it once the Gang’s thwarted desire for Thunder-dong builds to a frenzy, “White men can’t have anything any more,” while Dennis ramps things up further with a pointedly on-the-nose, “We want something and we know we deserve it, but we’re not getting it!”
As it ever is when Sunny lets the Gang loose to wrangle over a divisive issue (abortion, gun control, sexual harassment, ableism, racism, any -ism, really), the point is much less about making an airtight case than it is about satirizing lowest-common-denominator American group-think, with the Gang’s heat invariably bubbling over to reveal the leering, blinkered face of ignorance, bigotry, and self-obsession sputtering at the bottom of the pot. Sunny perpetually (and mostly brilliantly) courts misinterpretation of its satire of yahoo comedy by engaging in yahoo comedy. (Frank assessing the likelihood of John Thundergun having many illegitimate children out there thanks to “all the raw-dog loads he drops” being but one present example.)
And therein lies the sneaky profundity of the episode’s twist, where the moderator exasperatedly rebuts the Gang’s tortured arguments about their beloved Thunder Gun series being killed thanks to what Dennis rants is “the oppressive thumb of this new liberal Hollywood moral PC elite” with the fact that the PG-13 Thunder Gun is solely a result of flagging ticket sales because of streaming, a youth-skewing theatergoing public, and the fact of people (like the Gang) watching their cheap, R-rated thrills via pirated illegal download. (The Gang pretends not to know what she’s talking about before copping to the reality that their favorite sites have names like moviepirate.com, freemovies/arrrrrr, and stolenmovies.free.) Plus there was that time the Gang totally went to see a Thunder Gun movie but Frank called in a bomb threat to empty the theater. They watched it later online.
As a way to sidestep the implications of the cultural argument the episode raises, it’s a bit of a cheat, although the very, 14-season existence of a series like It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia itself puts down the whole “P.C. culture is killing ‘edgy’ comedy” argument into the trash bin. (Just a tip to Todd Phillips: Try being clever in your “outrageousness.”) On the other hand, the moderator’s point that all this cultural hand-wringing is simply window-dressing to the raw, naked, dong-hanging economics of multi-billion-dollar corporations lays bare the essentially silliness of thinking that the Thunder Gun producers give a shit about anything devoted fans have to say. As to the episode hingeing on the piracy/streaming angle to justify the series’ new direction, the explanation might seem a little narrow, even if the aging Gang underscores the point by bailing on another sewer-scuttling field trip to see the re-revamped Thunder Gun sequel (Thunder Gun: Maximum Bulge) they wanted (since Dee leaked Frank’s illegally recorded screening copy to the internet) in favor of pirating it in the grubby comfort of Paddy’s. On Dennis’ phone. “You’re saying it’s our fault we don’t get to see the dong?,” asked Dennis incredulously when the moderator spelled out the rationale behind the PG-13 downgrade, even though the Gang’s failure to economically support the resurgent, raw-dogging Thunder Gun of old guarantees that the whole outrage cycle is just one, big, dong-slapping joke on all of them.
- Mac refines his “foreigner equals bad guy” formula to exclude those happy-go-lucky Australians. “Rapscallions,” nods Dennis appreciatively.
- Dee keeps screwing up the guys’ attempts to ape the film’s “I am Spartacus!”-style catchphrase drama, which, according to them, is proof that “women ruin everything.”
- In the end, though, it’s Dee who rallies the troops to screw over the PG-13 Thunder Gun, finally gaining the guys’ admiration by coming up with the inspiration of pirating the movie themselves.
- The moderator, finally twigging to just what kind of people she’s dealing with: “Is this still about the flaccid penis you want to see?”
- Charlie doesn’t pick up that the dying John Thundergun is passing the torch to his son even after Thundergun literally passes the lad a flaming torch, saying, “You continue my story.”
- Mac piles on the cinematic crimes by telling Dennis to turn on “auto-motion” on his phone.