Thursday, October 11, 2012

Review: "Here Comes the Boom"

"Here Comes the Boom" is the perfect star vehicle for Kevin James, because in many ways it's a reflection of his persona -- goofy, flabby around the middle, a little bit crude but with a soft, heartwarming center.

The movie, about a high school teacher who fights in mixed martial arts bouts to raise money, has a slightly amateurish feel to it and swings wild on a lot of its storytelling punches. But it connects when it counts.

A number of observers have pointed out that "Boom" is essentially a comedic version of last year's "Warrior," in which Joel Edgerton played a teacher who gets back in the ring to earn cash for his family. Scott Voss' motives are in some ways even purer -- he wants to save the job of his pal the music teacher, Marty (Henry Winkler), who faces the axe when the entire music program is threatened with extinction.

Scott was a champion wrestler in college, but that was 20 years ago and time has taken its toll not just on his body but his soul. A former Teacher of the Year a decade ago, the biology instructor is barely phoning it in, showing up late and reading the newspaper while his kids chatter among themselves.

Malia (played by Filipino songstress Charice) is the smart girl in the front row craving for a mentor, but Scott is too wound up in his own cynicism to show any interest. His only act of initiative is continually hitting on the health teacher, Bella (Salma Hayek), whose mouth says no-no but whose eyes say maybe-maybe.

When the evil principal -- are there any good principals in movies anymore? -- threatens to shut down the music program, Scott offers to come up with the $48,000 needed to save it. He doesn't really have any idea how, and his notion of teaching night citizenship classes barely brings in enough to bother.

It does spur an encounter with one of his students, a burly Dutchman named Niko, played by real-life retired MMA fighter Bas Rutten. Niko is a muscle-bound bundle of giddy personality, happily jumping around or singing as the mood strikes him. Rutten can't really act, but he brings a lot of enthusiasm to the role.

Through Niko he gets the idea of getting in the MMA ring, despite a total lack of experience. His first bout goes badly, getting knocked out by a kick within the first two seconds. But he learns to play defense, with the goal of losing but not getting hurt. The money starts piling up.

Then a funny thing happens: Scott gets angry and wins a bout. Astonished by the fact that the winner gets paid twice as much as the loser, he starts really putting himself into training. Now the wins start coming, and before long real-life UFC announcer Joe Rogan comes calling to offer a high-profile fight in Las Vegas.

The usual sideline stuff happens. The principal finds out about the fighting and thinks the involvement with MMA reflects badly on the school. The students pass around YouTube videos of their teacher's most embarrassing fight, but nonetheless start to form some respect for him. In turn Scott begins to actually teach in the classroom, and Bella warms up.

It's scriptwriting 1-2-3, with all the pieces falling together in seemingly preordained order. James co-write the screenplay with Rock Reuben and Allan Loeb, while James' frequent co-conspirator Frank Coraci directs.

The fight scenes are well-staged and occasionally thrilling, as Scott loses his green luster and actually starts to show some confidence in the ring. As an MMA brawler James is not unconvincing -- his torso is thick but not jiggly, and he has a powerful chest and shoulders. Even though he's a funnyman, it helps that he actually can appear a little intimidating.

"Here Comes the Boom" -- the title is based on a song by the heavy metal band P.O.D. that Scott plays on his walks from the locker room to the ring -- will not be confused with quality filmmaking. It's often ham-handed and obvious. But Kevin James is an amiable screen presence, and this movie seems infused with his spirit.

Sometimes it's better to be liked than respected.

2.5 stars out of four

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