Balls of Fury
PUBLIC SERVICE Fogler shows off his table manners in this comedy about a ping-pong ninja drawn into an FBI sting.
Will Ferrell has raised the sports spoof to an art form. His work in films such as Talladega Nights and Blades of Glory has inspired imitation by less gifted performers — Andy Samberg in the recent motocross wipeout Hot Rod, for example — and now it’s been given the “genre-parody treatment.”
To enjoy Balls of Fury to the maximum extent possible, it’s helpful to put it in the context of genre parody, itself a venerable art form. Airplane! was, after all, more fun than any of the high-altitude dramas it spoofed. The Naked Gun series was more memorable than many of the cop shows and motion pictures whose conventions it appropriated and turned on their heads. Scary Movie might have gone down in history as one of the classics of the form, had its creators shown the good sense to stop after the first one.
Balls of Fury, it seems to me, isn’t intended as a comedy in the Talladega or Blades tradition so much as a send-up of their particular and, by now, well-established conventions. Add a satire of martial-arts films from the ’70s and ’80s to the mix. An inspired combination? That might go too far. But it is one that inspires occasional moments of transcendent absurdity.
The picture stars Dan Fogler, a meaty chap whose turn here as a hard-rock-loving slob invites comparisons to Jack Black, though he’s actually a Tony-winning Broadway performer. Fogler plays one-time table tennis prodigy Randy Daytona. Having disgraced himself at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the now-twentysomething paddle jockey has been reduced to whacking balls as part of a cheesy Vegas lounge act. In its execution, this is a concept that doesn’t prove to be precisely funny. But it is — well, the term is still “transcendently absurd.” A lot of the movie is like that.
George Lopez rides in on that same surreal wave as an FBI agent whose assignment is to recruit Daytona for an undercover mission. A mysterious international arms dealer is assembling the world’s greatest players for a ping-pong death match at his Central American jungle hide-out, and Lopez wants the washed-up player to go into training and get back in shape so he can earn an invitation to the event.
Along the way to snagging that invitation, Daytona gets the Karate Kid treatment from a blind Chinese ping-pong master (James Hong) and falls for his niece, played by Hong Kong superstar Maggie Q. Then it’s off to rumble in the jungle.
The screenwriter Robert Ben Garant (“Reno 911!,” Night at the Museum), who makes his directorial debut here, was probably wise not to quit his day job. What the film lacks in polish, however, it almost makes up for in trippy touches. The trippiest, naturally, is the casting of Christopher Walken as the sting’s target, Mr. Feng. He plays the character as a cross between an ’80s movie drug lord and a gay Count Dracula. Why? Why not?
The final act has a decidedly Naked Gun feel. The sight gags, jokes and little white balls fly fast and furiously as competitors are eliminated — literally — and Lopez tries in vain to call in the troops. Much of the movie’s humor borders on the braindead, and most of it misses the mark. Garant and company throw so much at the screen, however, that what does work adds up to an amiably moronic time. I defy you not to laugh at the bit about male sex slaves.
And bear in mind that what the filmmaker has attempted with his feature debut is a spoof of a movie form that is itself spoof-based. This makes for something of a cinematic rabbit hole, and it’s clear that, in navigating it, everyone involved made up the rules as they went. The experiment could hardly be called an unmitigated success, but one has to give Garant points for taking a whack at it.