Ben Garant’s Reno 911!: Miami was tolerable because it at least delivered on the modest promise of the TV show, i.e. it featured bizarro sights like Paul Rudd as a Scarface-like drug lord torturing a hostage with a weed whacker. On a yacht. Prompting one of this year’s more memorable snatches of dialogue: "Who brings a weed whacker on a boat!?!?" This wouldn’t be enough to save most movies*, but comedy is different; your film can be technically inept and devoid of a coherent narrative, but all is forgiven so long as there are sufficient belly laughs.
Garant’s follow-up, Balls of Fury (actually, it wouldn’t have been a follow-up had the film been released as initially intended in January 2007), cannot be forgiven, and should never be seen by anyone who wants to maintain a favorable opinion of his and co-writer Thomas Lennon’s work. More scripted than Reno 911: Miami (which is to say that it actually is scripted), this hybrid parody of sports movies and kung-fu punch-ups sprinkles occasional chuckles across a cruel ninety-minute run time as it tries to tell the story of a fallen ping pong prodigy (Dan Fogler) recruited by the F.B.I. to infiltrate the kumite of table tennis tournaments. The invite-only competition is convened by Feng (Christopher Walken), an international arms dealer whose wardrobe choices suggest Ming the Merciless by way of Elton John. It sounds amusing…
There’s potential in Balls of Fury, but this mostly stems from the impressive lineup of comedy ringers Garant and Lennon have assembled. And while it’s always a pleasure to see David Koechner, Patton Oswalt and Terry Crews turning up in the same movie, they’re not given much to do (Crews is particularly shortchanged as a scowlingly intense street baller). This could be a blessing, as excess screen time does nothing for Lennon, who affects a stock German accent and mugs like mad as Fogler’s arch-nemesis from the 1988 Seoul Olympics; it’s a lot of effort for a whole lot of unfunny.
What laughs there are in the film come courtesy of James Hong (as a blind table tennis sensei), Diedrich Bader (appearing briefly as a board game-obsessed sex slave in Feng’s fortress) and, surprisingly, Jason Scott Lee. It may be a stretch to declare Lee revelatory as the bullying lieutenant of a ping-pong mob, but he parodies his Bruce Lee persona from Dragon with remarkable ease. Actually, he just revives what was already something of a caricature, and puts it to better use in a full-blown comedy. But it works. Lee might’ve just extended his career.
I suppose there’s something commendable about Garant and Lennon trying to make an all-ages comedy, but they compensate for their inability to indulge in full-frontal male nudity by going heavy on crotch gags and 80s nostalgia (fyi, cuing up Def Leppard’s "Photograph" and "Rock of Ages" on the soundtrack is not, by itself, hilarious). And when they can’t invent a reason for someone to get railed in the nuts, they go to Walken, who seems to be completing his decades-long thesis on awkward line readings. Walken does grotesque things to his dialogue in this movie, but it’s more fascinating than funny. Usually, his weirdness is effortless, which is why it’s so endearing; but in Balls of Fury you can actually see him working to put the wrong emphasis on the wrong word in every sentence. He also alternates tone and pace more garishly and inexplicably than ever before. It’s quite something to see… for about five minutes, and then it becomes torturous.
This is the third time I’ve seen Fogler in a movie (the other two cheerful experiences were School for Scoundrels and Fanboys), and there’s no doubting his talent; he’s got a huge presence and superior comedic timing. Basically, he’s Jack Black II – which is problematic because people are already tired of Jack Black I. And while I’m aware that Fogler’s won a Tony Award for Best Actor in that spelling bee musical, he’s yet to demonstrate Black’s range (such as it is); maybe his upcoming performance as Alfred Hitchcock in Number 13 will make do the trick. Anything is better than this.
*Though we haven’t really put this to the test, have we? Who’s to say Paul Rudd reprising his role as Ethan the Druglord in, say, Alan Parker’s historically wretched The Life of David Gale wouldn’t spare it the ignominy of being the worst movie of the decade thus far?