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This review was written for the theatrical release of “Balls of Fury.”
The pingpong balls fly fast and furious — and for a while, so do the laughs — in this willfully dumb sports-underdog sendup from the creators/stars of Comedy Central’s “Reno! 911.”
The good news is that Christopher Walken, resplendent in purple silk, isn’t the film’s sole redeeming element. The bad news is that even his arch-villain can’t save “Balls of Fury” from losing bounce as the story proceeds. But as business for boxoffice superstar “Superbad” fades, young viewers, especially males, will flock to this martial arts action take on table tennis.
Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, whose writing credits include “The Pacifier” and “Night at the Museum,” have concocted a boilerplate setup for their hero, a fallen-from-grace Olympic contender who gets a chance to redeem himself as a secret agent. It seems there’s more to table tennis than suburban basements; the movie takes us into the sport’s seamy underworld, traveling from Chinatown alleys to “somewhere in Central America.” Plot and character development are minimal, while short pants and groin-injury jokes are plentiful in the story of Randy Daytona (the affable and comically agile Dan Fogler).
In a nice touch, we see that even the White House-occupying Reagans were rapt as 12-year-old Randy (Brett DelBuono) faced East Germany’s maniacal Karl Wolfschtagg (Lennon). Nineteen years after his humiliating defeat in Seoul, Randy still has game — and his 1988-issue Def Leppard paddle — but he’s reduced to performing a pingpong lounge act for early bird diners in Reno. (David Koechner’s lead-in act, complete with cockatoo, might set a new standard for showbiz delusions.)
Rescuing Randy from has-been ennui is FBI agent Ernie Rodriguez (a well-cast, gray-suited George Lopez), frustrated with desk work and eager for a Bondian adventure. He enlists the pudgy headband wearer to infiltrate a high-stakes private tourney organized by evil mastermind Feng (Walken), a former pingpong student who also happens to be responsible for Randy’s father’s murder.
Director Garant draws committed performances of varying loopiness from his cast, providing able comic foils for Fogler’s ultra-likable protagonist and his mega-sideburns. James Hong’s winningly deadpan blind pingpong master, Wong, offers adages of little practical or philosophical value. As Wong’s niece, Maggie Q sweetly falls for Randy and displays lean, mean chopsocky moves. And the presence in small roles of martial arts movie actors Jason Scott Lee and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa ups the ante in the film’s kung-fu-ization of pingpong.
The rapid-fire, absurd yet precise volleys are a blast to watch, whether Maggie Q is taking on four opponents at once or Walken and Fogler are going paddle-to-paddle across a suspension bridge — one of the more striking elements of Jeff Knipp’s flavorful production design. Walken’s priceless line delivery is a fine, disorienting mismatch for his long braid and Elvis-meets-Madame Butterfly getups (the most deliriously over-the-top costumes in MaryAnn Bozek’s impressive arsenal).
But even the sight of the dastardly Feng sipping fancy drinks between lethal commands to his statuesque henchwoman (Aisha Tyler) can’t disguise the fact that the film loses steam as it proceeds. Abetted by their fine troupe, Garant and Lennon know how to emphasize self-serious foolishness, but as the story line grows more ridiculous, it mines fewer laughs and slips dangerously close to formula schmaltz. It’s the killer pingpong action that ultimately keeps “Balls” afloat.
BALLS OF FURY
A Rogue Pictures, Intrepid Pictures and Spyglass Entertainment presentation
Director: Robert Ben Garant
Screenwriters: Thomas Lennon, Robert Ben Garant
Producers: Roger Birnbaum, Gary Barber, Jonathan Glickman, Thomas Lennon
Executive producers: Ron Schmidt, Derek Evans
Director of photography: Thomas E. Ackerman
Production designer: Jeff Knipp
Music: Randy Edelman
Costume designer: MaryAnn Bozek
Editor: John Refoua
Randy Daytona: Dan Fogler
Feng: Christopher Walken
Ernie Rodriguez: George Lopez
Maggie: Maggie Q
Wong: James Hong
Freddy: Terry Crews
Sgt. Pete Daytona: Robert Patrick
Gary: Diedrich Bader
Mahogany: Aisha Tyler
Karl Wolfschtagg: Thomas Lennon
Siu-Foo: Jason Scott Lee
Mysterious Asian Man: Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa
Young Randy: Brett DelBuono
Rick the Birdmaster: David Koechner
Running time — 90 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13
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