Saturday, January 23, 2016

Balls of Fury / 1/2* (2007)

In a literal context, “Balls of Fury” is a movie about a misfit competing in an upscale Ping Pong tournament in order to gain information against a government enemy, but on some subterranean level, it’s a study of how celebrity agents can coerce a talented veteran actor into participating in one of the most painfully unfunny comedies ever made. The very existence of Christopher Walken has the capability of inspiring devious intrigue, but the suspicion that any person in his circle did not look at this project and insist on restraint is a disheartening prospect. That, of course, opens the door to more centralized contemplations. Did he really think what he was getting involved in was flattering to his legacy? Was he simply manipulated into it for a financial gain too precious to contemplate? Or worse yet, did he find it at all funny, essentially pigeonholing his own sense of humor as one of tone-deaf naivety? The lack of an answer may be even more troubling, especially in context of a supply of scenes where he is made to look and move like a confused impersonator doped up on mood enhancers.

“Balls of Fury” is one of the worst movies of this or any other generation, a flaccid exercise so devoid of the simplest joys that it seems made from a detached conceit alien to all forms of intelligent life. No one involved – the director, the writer or the casting agent – seems remotely aware of their collective miscalculation, and that only adds a mask of painful awareness to everything occurring on screen. The very tone of the jokes is not merely bad or unfunny, they’re embarrassing to all five senses. And while certain perspectives would be worth considering in order to establish some kind of common ground, the actors don’t look interested enough to sell some unseen charm in this story. There is a moment towards the end where they all share looks of displeasure while seated on a canoe, and after the experience that precedes them, one has to wonder if there is a secondary motive to that gaze – whether they are simply exhausted from feigning interest, or contemplating inevitable unemployment.

The movie tells of the adventures of one Randy Daytona (Dan Fogler), a former child champion of Ping Pong relegated to the curse of fringe relevance in the wake of a failure at the 1988 Olympics, when he lost his title to a gruff German competitor. Unfortunately, his gambling father also bet his life on his son’s win, adding certain guilt to his outcome; because Dad was taken away and apparently executed as a result, Randy has aged into an overgrown adolescent incapable of holding jobs or meaningful relationships (though there are no references to his therapy bills, alas). Then, one day in between moments of a deadening routine, an FBI agent (George Lopez) comes knocking on his door, insisting on his help with a secret case overseas. The scenario: Randy’s father’s killer, an apparent madman hiding in a Chinese compound, may be harboring dangerous weapons that threaten the safety of governments, and after many unfortunate deaths surrounding participants in black market Ping Pong tournaments, he suspects Randy is the only option at gaining entry to those secrets.

That inevitably leads to the assembly of an ensemble of supporting players meant to scale up the pitch of humorous possibilities. Alas, none of them have much purpose other than perpetuating stereotypes. Among them: Rodriguez (the Lopez character), a bumbling idiot of a law enforcer whose situations seems tailor-made for Lopez’ brand of stand-up punchlines; Wong (James Hong), a blind Ping Pong teacher who speaks in euphemisms that would make Mr. Miyagi cringe; Maggie (Maggie Q), his beautiful niece and Randy’s inevitable love interest; and Gary, a male prostitute whose dialogue is scripted only to emphasize his relevance as a running gay joke. And standing at the head of this pack is the villain Feng (Walken), wandering through scenes as if ambivalent to the screenplay’s requirements of him, occasionally barking comical orders while smoothing out his flamboyant threads and drinking elaborate cocktails.

The danger (if you can call it that) in the conflict is that Randy must worm his way into the Ping Pong competition that Feng is promoting, and in doing so much confront the figure of the man apparently responsible for killing his father while Rodriguez digs up dirt for the FBI. With such menacing proposals, that ought to have suggested Walken’s character to be some sort of master of grandiose masquerade. But he is an emperor with no clothes, a figure of unspeakable density who seems lost in the thought of a joke with no punchline. That the movie implicates him – even for the purpose of comedy – to be something more than a simple note of comic relief is one of the most glaring red herrings you can imagine. There is never a moment where we suspect he is in on the joke; during a climax where he inevitably reveals his lofty plans for domination, there is a sense he isn’t so much one-upping his enemies as he is boring them with cheap last-minute script ploys.

All of this is typical in a comedy that has no sense of where to take a joke, but why was the subject of Ping Pong of particular interest to anyone setting up this premise? Scripted and directed by Robert Ben Garant (of “Reno! 911” fame), the movie is a labored and pathetic assembly of clich├ęs, contradictions and one-note joke setups that seem plucked from the obscurity of screwball formulas. They don’t work for a variety of reasons, but one of the primary – and yes, I am going to place blame here – is the casting of the three leads. It is fair to assume that Walken and Lopez might carry a film if given the right material, but they have no business trying to sell this turkey because it is clear neither cares that much. Fogler, meanwhile, completely derails the whole thing; he is neither effective nor modulated enough to come across as anything other than a Jack Black understudy, and his awkward mixture of loud diatribes and physical quirkiness comes across as showy desperation. What in the world was he thinking? Did he believe that his brand of wild panache would make him at all appealing as a protagonist? If comedy works better when we are given someone to root for, then “Balls of Fury” is the first ever made where the best laugh is in knowing we never have to meet any of the characters.

Which brings us right back to Walken’s Feng, one of the most bizarre movie miscalculations in recent memory. Here is a villain bankrupt of basic conceptual inspiration, dressed in garments and hairstyles that are too eccentric to be anything other than baffling, whose mere presence instills a sense of discomfort. A minor actor playing this role might have just evaporated quickly from our sphere of consideration, but because Walken always ensures his presence is grounding in everything he appears in, that only taints an already painful memory. It isn’t flattering, funny or even remotely amusing to see him undermine his credibility this drastically. Not since Rip Torn appeared in the awful “Freddy Got Fingered” has such bad decision-making gone noticed. But by the point of story conferences, would anyone have really dared to speak up in protest against his inclusion? This is a movie too incompetent to understand the gravity of the damage, but its filmmakers knew exactly what they were doing, and I wonder how they can live with themselves.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Comedy (US); 2007; Rated PG-13; Running Time: 90 Minutes

Dan Fogler: Randy Daytona
Christopher Walken: Feng
George Lopez: Rodriguez
Maggie Q: Maggie
James Hong: Wong
Diedrich Bader: Gary

Produced by Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum, Derek Evans, Jonathan Glickman, Michael Gordon, Thomas Lennon and Ron Schmidt; Directed by Robert Ben Garant; Written by Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant

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