There are comedy pitches so insane that they go past 'crazy,' around the sphere of possibility to 'brilliant' and back again. Watching the trailer for Balls of Fury -- a comedy backed by many of the minds behind Comedy Central's Reno 911! -- I felt something like awe at the audacity of the pitch: They're making a ping pong comedy ... with the same plot as Enter the Dragon? For those of you not in the know, Enter the Dragon was the final film Bruce Lee completed before his untimely death in 1973; the plot involved a group of martial artists being asked to take part in a tournament at the secret island fortress of a shadowy criminal mastermind. Some come to the tournament for riches; some come for the juice; but one man (Lee) comes to infiltrate the island on behalf of an intelligence service -- and avenge the death of a loved one at the hands of the criminal mastermind. ...

And that's the plot of Balls of Fury -- only with ping pong in the place of martial arts, the husky-yet-funny Dan Fogler in the place of Bruce Lee, Christopher Walken in the role of the criminal mastermind. Co-writers Thomas Lennon and Ben Garant have thrown some broad comedy stuff into Balls of Fury's mix -- mining laughs from portly people falling down or people taking ping pong balls to the head or sudden reversals of fortune. But they also have some very specific stuff that mocks Enter the Dragon -- everything from sound effects to set design to a weird-but-brilliant riff on one of Enter the Dragon's creepier moments, where the criminal mastermind host offers his guests sex slaves for the evenings of their stay. ...

And yes, it's hard to make a sex slave joke work, but Lennon and Garant manage to pull it off. Fogler (playing ex-Olympian ping pong player Randy Dakota) -- who manages to play grandiose swagger and a sweet sense of insecurity in the part -- is a big part of Balls of Fury's success; he's like a kinder, gentler version of early Jack Black, less manic and more sympathetic. He's also surrounded by a supporting cast who work with the film, and who all seem to be on-board with the film's overall arc. George Lopez plays the FBI agent who recruits Randy with something like restraint; James Hong (best remembered as the insanely over-the-top David Lo Pan in Big Trouble in Little China) plays the ping pong mentor who gets Randy back in the game; Maggie Q plays Hong's daughter and Randy's sparring partner.

And then there is Walken. There's a danger that Walken has become so weirdly iconic that he's a stand-in for himself in some parts, tasked with nothing more challenging than showing up and being 'weird.' That's a possibility here -- the part of a criminal mastermind with a love of ping pong and a penchant for fauxriental robes isn't exactly King Lear -- but, at the same time, he is Walken, and his crazy spice-mix lends a certain unique flavor to any film.

But Balls of Fury isn't just about unique flavor or wacky cameos, like Patton Oswalt's brief turn as an asthmatic ping pong maven; it's got a structure, and manages to mock '80s sports movies in general (Randy's theme music is Def Leppard) and Enter the Dragon specifically -- and, just as Enter the Dragon borrowed from the Bond movies, Balls of Fury appropriates devices here and there from the Bonds that have come since. More specifically, there's a unique ping pong set -- that delivers electric shocks to a player when their opponent scores a point -- that'll be familiar to anyone with clear memories of Never Say Never Again. ...

Director Garant has a nice handle on Balls of Fury's tone; for all of the crazy-kitsch of the design and plot, many of the jokes have a slow-burn sensibility that sneaks up on you instead of coming straight-on. And after the film, you realize how many special effects shots Balls of Fury must have required -- it's weird to contemplate that we live in the age of the digitally-aided ping pong comedy -- and appreciate that Garant manages to work them into the film fairly naturally -- or, as naturally as you can work in, for example, a sequence of conjoined twins playing ping pong.

It's also a nice tonal choice that while Balls of Fury features funny characters who are Hispanic, or African-American or Asian, they are not funny because they're Hispanic or African-American or Asian. Balls of Fury isn't overly earnest (there's too many jokes at the expense of Hong's sightless master for that to be the case), but it never takes too low a road to get an easy laugh. (In fact, the closest thing to a stereotype in the film is Lennon's manic Teutonic ping pong champ, Karl Wolfschtagg, but the comedy comes more from Lennon's high-pitch craziness than anything specifically 'German.')

Balls of Fury isn't quite as good as Dodgeball, but it's a different film -- and while the Enter the Dragon elements may narrow the audience somewhat, they also provide a nice cushion for the comedy to stay rest upon, keeping the film from getting too broad or diluted. Balls of Fury may be fairly specialized (How many sports-flick/martial arts parodies can you name, off the top of your head?), but even with that weird backhand spin, it scores more than a few points.
CATEGORIES Reviews, Cinematical