Reel Opinions

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Balls of Fury

I laughed quite a bit at Balls of Fury. In fact, I sometimes found myself laughing twice at the same joke. The first time, I would laugh at how stupid and/or absurd the joke was. And then, I would find myself laughing at myself for laughing at it. There is a certain innocence to this movie that so many recent parodies have lacked. Unlike films like Epic Movie, that simply rehash storylines of popular films and try to fit as many fart jokes and movie references into 90 minutes as they can, Balls of Fury takes its sweet time and tells a likeably loopy story that probably won't stick with you long after you've walked out of the theater, but you'll remember having a good time while watching it.

Former ping pong child prodigy, Randy Daytona (Dan Fogler) has fallen on hard times ever since he choked during a competition in the 88 Summer Olympics Table Tennis event. This once-promising star of the sport is now a fat, out of shape has-been doing ping pong stunt shows in Reno to a mostly uninterested audience. After one of his performances, an FBI agent named Ernie Rodriguez (George Lopez) approaches him with a dangerous mission. The government wants Randy to go undercover and infiltrate an illegal underground life and death ping pong tournament that's held every year by the mysterious and seldom-seen super villain, Master Feng (Christopher Walken). In order to get his skills back up to speed so that he stands a chance in the tournament, Randy is placed under the watchful eye (so to speak) of the blind ping pong wizard, Master Wong (James Hong) and his beautiful niece, Maggie (Maggie Q). When Randy arrives at the island where the tournament is held, he finds that there's much more going on than a high stakes game of table tennis, as he uncovers the evil Feng's secret weapon lab and much more.

What struck me the most about Balls of Fury is how fun and simple it is. Rather than target a specific movie, the film goes after certain genres (namely sports underdog films and martial arts movies, with a touch of James Bond as well), and mixes them together in such a way so that the movie never feels like its biting off more than it can chew. It manages to stay focused on the cliches of each of its targets, and usually is able to deliver at least one laugh consistently. Not all of the jokes are successful, and the movie does start to lose some steam during the third act, but the film never failed to at least keep me entertained. Like the best of parodies, this is a movie that plays it completely straight. The actors pretend like they don't know the material is completely ridiculous, and that's part of the fun. No one is allowed to mug for the camera or play up the fact that this is udder nonsense. None of the performances quite match the expert deadpan comic timing of Leslie Nielsen in classics such as Airplane or The Naked Gun, but everyone has at least studied the right material and knows what they are doing.

There is one aspect in this film that is brilliant both in its performance and in its casting, and that is Christopher Walken in the role of the lead villain. This is Walken's best comedic performance in quite a while, and he seems to be having a ball. Part of what makes him so hilarious is how intentionally miscast he is. His character is supposed to be your cliched martial arts Asian villain who could have been the best student of the wise old master, but greed overcame him, and he walked away and turned to evil before he could finish his training. (Of course, this time, it's ping pong instead of kung fu.) His face has never been seen, but the FBI has a composite sketch that makes him look like Mr. Sulu from Star Trek. When the evil Master Feng is finally seen for the first time, the characters are surprised to see not what they expect. We the audience, unfortunately, are not since the commercials have featured Walken prominently in them. I almost wish the ad campaign had not given away this gag, and that he had gone uncredited, as I think the joke would have worked much better. Still, none the less, it works. Walken does not play the character as an Asian stereotype, which is a wise decision, especially after seeing Rob Schneider's embarrassing performance as a gay Japanese man in this summer's I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. He plays it as if he's wandered in from a different movie, and that's what makes the performance so funny. It's tough to explain, but he manages to make even little incidental bits of dialogue, such as directing someone to the bathroom, and get a laugh.

The rest of the cast don't quite rise to Walken's level, but everyone still does their best, and walk away with at least one memorable moment. In his first big screen lead role, comic and stage actor Dan Fogler is good, and manages to get a couple laughs throughout the film. It was nice to see an overweight lead actor who did not rely on his weight for his humor. There are no pot shots made at him, nor is there any scene where he sits on a piece of furniture and breaks it. (And trust me, I was waiting for it to happen.) He's able to make a comic character without any obvious or easy jokes. In the key supporting roles, George Lopez makes for a likable sidekick, even if the character is a bit underwritten and is forced to stand in the background for most of the film. When the movie allows him to step forward, he gets off more than a couple good lines. Another actor who doesn't get enough screen time is the lovely Maggie Q, who impressed me earlier this summer as one of the main villains in Live Free or Die Hard, and comes across as a lovely yet strong presence here. She proves that she's more than capable at getting laughs, as well as handling some real fight scenes. She has a good screen presence too, it's a shame she disappears for a good part of the film. I hope I can soon see her in a role that truly exploits her talents.
When I go to see a comedy, I try to judge it on how often I laughed. I laughed enough at Balls of Fury to say that it definitely qualifies as a guilty pleasure. I walked in not expecting much, but walked out with a silly grin on my face. As mentioned before, the movie doesn't always work. There are some dead spots, especially during the later half, and some of the gags either don't work or could have been so much more. (The running gag concerning the villain's gay male sex slaves seem like a wasted opportunity that could not be fully exploited unless the filmmakers bumped the movie up to an R-rating.) Still, I was entertained enough to say that this movie took me by surprise. If you're in the right mood, Balls of Fury should not disappoint.



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