Dir: Robert Ben Garant. US. 2007. 90mins.
A rather shockingly enervated treatment of a colourful, wilfully silly concept, Balls of Fury looks to disappoint both those expecting the bawdy underdog tale of a make-good loser and those seeking something a bit more offbeat from its creators, the creative team behind the small screen cable series Reno 911.
Obvious benchmarks, both in the movie's conception and its marketing, are fellow marginalized sports comedies Dodgeball and Blades of Glory. But Balls of Fury, in addition to lacking the star power of those films, delivers nowhere near as many laughs. Devoted fans of co-star Christopher Walken may turn out during the first week, hoping to catch another inspired, zonked-out performance from the famously eccentric star, but even his turn here feels listless, like he's going through the motions.
Deadly word-of-mouth within the film's target demographic will abet a quick theatrical death in the US, and likely abroad as well; the DVD market will be much kinder to this release, since it still has a suitably outlandish visual pitch.
The film opens with a preamble which details the back story of 12-year-old ping-pong prodigy Randy Daytona, who's competing in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. After he suffers a crushing loss in the finals to trash-talking German master Karl Wolfschtagg (Thomas Lennon), Randy's father is killed, apparently to settle a wager which he can't make good on. Nearly two decades later, a grown-up Randy (2005 Tony Award winner Dan Fogler) is retired from competition and performing parlour tricks at a casino buffet stage show when FBI agent Ernie Rodriguez (George Lopez) comes calling.
He enlists Daytona to help smoke out his father's killer - a reclusive villain named Feng (Walken) who every several years, for his own amusement, sanctions an underground ping-pong tournament comprised of the best players in the world. To get back into competitive shape and gain admittance to the contest, Daytona and Rodriguez turn to ping-pong sage and restaurateur Wong (James Hong), and the training expertise of Master Wong's wildly sexy niece Maggie (Maggie Q), both of whom also have their own dark history with Feng. Once Daytona gets entry, he discovers Feng's tournament is actually a duel to the death, causing even more complications and consternation.
Despite its out-there premise, director Garant, a writer-actor who made his feature directorial debut with Reno 911!: Miami earlier this year, delivers an air-quote comedy of awkwardness and an ambling, altogether casual story of familial vengeance masquerading as something wilder. He and co-scripter Lennon have collaborated on a number of screenplays, including last holiday season's extremely lucrative Night at the Museum, but the comedy here feels barely sketched out beyond the setting of scenes.
Of the film's few moments of diversionary amusement (an abortive escape attempt in which Daytona discovers bars on his window, co-star Diedrich Bader's explication of indentured sexual servitude), very few play out with any strength or comedic conviction. Nor do they necessarily feed the story.
It's pleasing, on one hand, that Balls of Fury doesn't trade solely on low-grade slapstick (though there is some of that here). But while the screenplay offers up a solid enough structure, it also ignores its own set-up. Daytona seems strangely detached from Feng, the man putatively responsible for his father's death; in short, the personal element doesn't play.
Still, it's not the low-energy treatment that dooms the film, but rather the fact that so many rejoinders and comedic opportunities are left unexplored on the table. Even Walken, typically a hoot, if even in discrete fashion, can't save this affair; all things considered, he plays his part fairly straight, and in one scene, he's very clearly reading from cue cards.
Refusing to totally yield to campy outrageousness, though, Fogler delivers an actual performance, a tack that, combined with his stage work and forthcoming filmography, indicates a vested interest in character that will serve him better in the future than here. Maggie Q, meanwhile, shows off a killer smile and her toned body in the movie's best action scene.
The film's probable high-water mark actually comes during its closing credits. Owing to the fact that Def Leppard's Rock of Ages figures prominently into the movie as Randy's dutifully rediscovered adolescent theme song, the same group's Pour Some Sugar on Me serves as the movie's outro, presented in karaoke fashion with the cast singing along at various levels of enthusiasm
Robert Ben Garant
Thomas Lennon & Robert Ben Garant
Director of photography
Thomas E. Ackerman
Jason Scott Lee