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Balls of Fury   C-

Rogue Pictures / Intrepid Pictures

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Robert Ben Garant
Writers: Thomas Lennon, Robert Ben Garant
Cast: Dan Fogler, Christopher Walken, George Lopez, Maggie Q, James Hong, Terry Crews, Robert Patrick, Diedrich Bader, Aisha Tyler, Thomas Lennon.

Review by Rob Vaux

Look, I laughed -- laughed -- a good four or five times during Balls of Fury. Big, dumb, moronic guffaws. I'm not proud of it, but there it is. And before I recount the many, many things wrong with this movie, I should note those few things it got right. For the undemanding fan in the depths of August, five laughs in 85 minutes might be worth a ticket. You can boost that count even higher if you think that fat guys are inherently funny or that Christopher Walken should dress in Gary Oldman's old Dracula getup more often. If none of that appeals to you, however, then Balls of Fury is more apt to be a tedious drag than a guilty pleasure.

For starters, it does very little that 2004's Dodgeball didn't do 40 zillion times better: start with an odd quasi-sport that no one takes seriously, elevate it to Rocky-esque proportions, and add a few funny people to make the material sing. Dodgeball used pointed jabs at ESPN-style pomposity for its laughs, coupled with some very funny send-ups of various plucky underdog clichés. Balls of Fury, on the other hand, trumpets the overall concept while ignoring the specific details. The game in question is Ping-Pong, which here becomes an underground death sport akin to the kung-fu of Enter the Dragon. That, for all intents and purposes, is the only joke. The plucky underdog comes in the form of Randy Daytona (Dan Fogler), disgraced former Olympian who now plies his skills as a novelty act somewhere in the ninth circle of casino hell. Then FBI agent Ernie Rodriguez (George Lopez) recruits him to participate in a secret table-tennis tournament TO THE DEATH, hosted by the infamous Feng (Walken), whom the feds want to nail for a number of unspecified crimes. How Daytona's participation will get them their man is a little fuzzy, but that's less important than facilitating the age-old satire of training scenes, Yoda-esque pontification, and colorful opponents standing between Daytona and his destiny.

Fitful moments of amusement occasionally escape the proceedings, as director Robert Ben Garant finds concepts that play off our expectations enough to winnow out a snicker or two. Other elements, however, straddle the line between deliberate and inadvertent humor, such as the fact that the tournament's "exotic" locale is clearly the Universal backlot (painfully obvious to anyone who has ever taken the tour). The remainder of the gags simply shoulder too much weight -- slight and threadbare to start with, then pushed much farther than they should in hopes of filling up enough screen time to reach feature length. For example, Daytona's ubiquitous Asian sensei (James Hong) is blind: a concept good for a few cheap laughs of the talking-to-walls-and-bumping-into-things variety. Nothing award-worthy of course, but a veteran showbiz trooper like Hong can work it reasonably well. The only trouble is that Balls of Fury never lets it go. So we get a few blind-guy jokes too many... then way too many... then so many that each new one elicits active groans of agony. Similar flogging accompanies the dubious ideas of Ping-Pong players as overhyped bad-asses and the James Bond silliness of Feng's secret lair. They water the already thin soup down to unpalatable proportions.

The cast is equally overloaded, depending more on physical appearance and a willingness to look foolish than any comedic skills. Fogler displays some decent instincts (he's won a Tony award, so there's street cred there), but Garant relies primarily on his doughy figure and ability to shriek like a girl rather than his timing or delivery. Lopez has a very funny bit in the bathroom to cover up a lot of sleepwalking, while Walken's performance redefines the term "phoned-in." The funniest cast members actually lurk further down the food chain: Aisha Tyler makes a passable impression as Feng's chief assassin (including one scene involving palace concubines that marks the film's modest highlight) and Jason Scott Lee proves a decent sport as one of Daytona's early rivals. Heroine/love interest Maggie Q is on much shakier ground, but she looks damn good in a sports bra, and with material this weak, such an asset should not be lightly dismissed.

Enough of it works well enough to let me merely dismiss Balls of Fury instead of actively loathing it the way I probably should. Unfunny comedies are the saddest of all bad films because you can't even laugh at them properly. Garant manages to keep that pathetic fate at bay (though only barely at times), and a project so problematic could do worse than the TBS Saturday afternoon standby it is most likely destined for. Anyone expecting more has far too much optimism for this time of year, and far too much faith in a film aiming as low as it possibly can. Balls of Fury is bad, but it's not really bad, and I suppose that's a victory of sorts... the kind its characters would take without hesitation.

Review published 08.29.2007.

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