HERE COMES THE BOOM
by Gary W. Shockley
In recent years, Hollywood has made several notable attempts to cash in on the growing propularity of MMA. In 2008, the last Olympic and election year, two contenders stepped into the cinematic cage, NEVER BACK DOWN and REDBELT, but despite the buzz, neither received notoriety. Last year, the big screen delivered two more: HAYWIRE and WARRIOR. WARRIOR has been the most successful MMA film to date, garnering an Oscar nomination for Nick Nolte for Actor in a Supporting Role, and yet, it was still largely overlooked.
Despite investing in high-powered directors and acting talent, as well as tapping reputable and even award-winning screenwriters, these projects have delivered mediocre-to-poor results, and it is clear that the genre has yet to be figured out.
The latest to hit the big screen is HERE COMES THE BOOM, which seems an unlikely candidate to succeed where others have failed. After all, who wants to see some fat guy pretend to be proficient at MMA? Die-hard MMA fans and martial artists are not likely to be amused. As for the general public, they are unlikely to want to sit through a 90-minute one-joke story.
Still, wouldn't it be ironic if this comedy turned out to be the best MMA film to date?
In large part, that seems to be the case.
With HERE COMES THE BOOM, Kevin James enters a select genre of films where chubby comedians spoof current martial arts fads. Sammo Hung did it first with his brilliant impersonation of Bruce Lee in ENTER THE FAT DRAGON (1978). Chris Farley did it just after the apex of the ninja craze in BEVERLY HILLS NINJA (1997). And following CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (2000), porcine Lam Chi Chung played Stephen Chow's porcine comic foil in both SHAOLIN SOCCER (2001) and KUNG FU HUSTLE (2004).
Coincidentally, BOOM borrows a plot element from WARRIOR. Both are about a school teacher trying to make ends meet by moonlighting as an MMA fighter. BOOM co-stars the Fonz, Henry Winkler, Salma Hayek, who has taken on such diverse Latina roles from FRIDA (2002) to PUSS IN BOOTS (2011), and, for some MMA veracity, UFC commentator Joe Rogan and former UFC heavyweight champion Bas Rutten. Rutten worked with James before with roles in ZOOKEEPER (2011), PAUL BLART: MALL COP (2009) and a reoccurring role in his THE KING OF QUEENS TV sitcom.
What is surprising about BOOM is that it beats the other MMA films at their own game. Even without the comedy, it gives a better portrayal of MMA. Other MMA movies, such as WARRIOR and REDBELT, have fallen short on various fronts. They didn't have enough fight sequences, or the fights were poorly choreographed, or the framing was too tight and incoherent. They didn't show enough of the martial training to give credibility to the fighters' skills. They didn't always depict MMA in a positive light (REDBELT was especially onerous in its depiction of a corrupt organization top to bottom where all the fights are rigged).
In all these regards, BOOM seems the better film. Kevin James is a revelation. He is more athletic than his sedentary role on THE KING OF QUEENS sitcom would lead one to believe. His physique is reminiscent of boxer/MMA fighter Butterbean (though without the reach or punching power), with a bullish strength and enough flexibility to throw convincing high kicks. He undergoes rigorous training. The fight sequences are well choreographed, and they outshine those in WARRIOR and REDBELT in their framing, continuity, and realism. In fact, they outshine the footage in a good many boxing or MMA movies. The blows are so convincing that one has to wince at the apparent punishment Kevin James is undergoing. Some of the shots are from his point of view, which are starkly disturbing.
Granted, Kevin James is not a real MMA fighter, and one will have to suspend some disbelief, as BOOM is not without some questionable cage outcomes. Still, it is surprising just how credible Kevin James presents himself as a fighter. The movie is rated PG, but it should appeal to a wider audience, even those who prefer rougher fare, as there are a good many interesting and brutal fights. At times it walks a rather delicate line. Just how much ground-and-pound should high school students be allowed to watch?
Finally there is the humor. Humor so often misfires. A concept can look funny on the drawing board, but by the time you're ready to shoot it, it has lost its inspiration, or it fails to sustain over 90 minutes. Humor can only be scripted up to a point. Beyond that it's up to the spontaneous chemistry of an inspired cast. That is where BOOM really shines. It is a funny movie. It is funny in many ways. And so many of the cast members contribute to it. Besides Kevin James, there's Salma Hayek, Henry Winkler, Gary Valentine (Kevin James' real older brother) and many others, all delivering funny scenes. Bas Rutten delivers a wonderfully comedic performance as Kevin James' trainer. While BOOM does take a few well-deserved pokes at MMA, the humor in large part plays out on a larger canvas, inspired by the everyday problems of everyday people. The economy is bad, the school is cutting programs, parents are struggling to make ends meet, kids are losing opportunities, yet through it all there is heart and compassion and hope, and the ability to laugh.
One has to wonder how this movie managed to balance out its many aspects so well when other MMA movies show serious fundamental flaws. The credit likely goes to actor/writer Kevin James. He is able to find humor in unexpected places. And it is an uncommon humor, oddly valenced, always fresh. Yes, there is potty humor, and it is legitimately funny, but there is so much more to his comic view of life.
MMA cinema has been in need of a breath of levity. WARRIOR was a grim if well-acted affair. REDBELT left a bad taste in the mouth with its depiction a fight business corrupt to the core. BOOM brings MMA into the living room, into the school, into everyday life, and teaches us something of value about ourselves. It is an emotional and inspirational ride that tugs at the heart-strings, drawing you in. And while you might occasionally feel a bit too manipulated, still, Kevin James is a master puppeteer, and it's easy to just sit back and enjoy the dance he engages you in.
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About Gary W. Shockley:
Gary W. Shockley is the copy editor of Kung Fu Tai Chi.