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Nuts To You

Labor Day is rolling around and with it a cinematic summer of robot invasions and gross-out comedies is pivoting to more serious fare. The coming weeks include any number of anticipated offerings: 3:10 to Yuma; Eastern Promises; In the Valley of Elah; The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford; Lust, Caution; and on and on. And then there's this week, in which the national openings consist of the Rob Zombie Halloween remake (which didn't screen for critics), the vigilante flick Death Sentence (which screened only for selected critics), and the ping-pong farce Balls of Fury. Hence, this review. Sometimes, you go to war with the army you have, not the one you wish you had.

Balls of Fury is the latest entrant in what has so far been a subpar subgenre, the can-you-believe-grown-men-are-doing-that sports parody pioneered by movies such as Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story and Blades of Glory. It's a subgenre that doesn't look to have much in the way of legs, though I hope it survives long enough for me to sell a few scripts I've been working on: Bad Milton (the story of a badminton champion with anger management issues--I'm thinking Sandler, obviously); Harlem Shuffle (in which the Wayons brothers pose as senior citizens to win the National Shuffleboard Championship and save their grandma's rest home); and Kickball ('nuff said).

Until these projects are greenlighted, however, Balls of Fury is the best we have. Sadly, "best" is not a word you will see again in this review. A sendup of the martial arts classic Enter the Dragon--because, you see, Chinese people do kung fu and play ping pong--Balls of Fury was written by "Reno 911!" creators Thomas Lennon and Ben Garant and directed by the latter. Tony-award winner Dan Fogler ("The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"), who is evidently a cheaper and less discerning hire than Jack Black, stars as Randy Daytona, a former table-tennis prodigy whose loss in the finals of the 1988 Seoul Olympics resulted in his father being killed by mobsters. (No, seriously, stop laughing. Let me finish.)

Now in his thirties, Randy does a second-rate show at a third-rate Reno casino, where he is introduced by a cockatiel--that is, until an FBI agent (George Lopez) approaches him and asks him to infiltrate a to-the-death ping-pong tournament hosted by the secretive and diabolical Mr. Feng (Christopher Walken). You can pretty much imagine how the story plays out from there, and in all likelihood it will be better in the imagining than it is in the viewing. There are an elderly ping-pong guru (James Hong) and an improbably hot love interest (Maggie Q). The Asian characters do things like talk funny and eat food with chop sticks that were just up someone's nose. A joke about male sex slaves that is actually pretty funny at first quickly descends into mincing caricature. Much hilarity is found in the coincidence that "balls" is also a word for "testicles"; those belonging to Randy are punched repeatedly, to diminishing comic effect.

Lennon and Garant are evidently aiming for the madcap parody style pioneered by Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers, but they never achieve the joke density needed to pull it off. The entire foundation of the Airplane! /Naked Gun/Scary Movie approach to comedy is the theory that quantity trumps quality-- that if you cram in a dozen gags a minute, it won't matter if the audience laughs at only a fraction of them. Balls of Fury, by contrast, is strangely lax, with long stretches of comic dead air between its would-be howlers. It's one thing not to be terribly funny; it's another to look like you're not even trying.

Which is a shame, because even as veterans like Walken, Hong, and Lopez sleepwalk through their roles, Fogler clearly is trying. A shaggy mass of hair and body fat--he resembles a hairball that has reached maturity--he makes the most of some fairly lame material, alternating between an endearing sweetness (usually when he's about to be hit in the balls) and heavy-metal scene chewing (his occasional capering to Def Leppard and his concluding rendition of "Pour Some Sugar on Me" are the most alive the movie ever gets). Put this guy in a Judd Apatow movie and he'd likely soar; in this one, it's all he can do to stay above water. Fogler does have several more film roles in the pipeline (Good Luck Chuck, Fanboys, Kids in America). One can only hope they have the sense to use him as more than a genital punching bag.