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East-West, None Know Best: Balls of Fury

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East-West, None Know Best: Balls of Fury

Balls of Fury looks like another sports-spoof throwaway, but it does have a piercing reason for being. American men love Eastern cultures in direct proportion to their staggering ignorance of same. They salivate over Asian women and cuisine; alternate between awe and mockery of the continent’s ancient practices (religions, martial arts); snicker at their relatively petite, slender men (the same ones whose kung fu/jujitsu/karate they applaud); envy the wisdom, richness, efficiency, and industriousness of their societies. And so American fans kowtow and condescend in the same awkward motion. Charlie Chan. Kill Bill. Wax on, wax off. Balls of Fury is all about this phenomenon. It’s a Chinese odyssey for people—men, especially—who call all Asians Chinese.

What makes it a men’s picture? Well, aside from the dead-giveway title, the whole plot is about a white manchild who lost his mojo after a massive public humiliation/symbolic emasculation and goes on a quest to get it all back. (And so it is a white men’s picture, too.) Twelve year old American champ Randy Daytona (Brett DelBuono) chokes during a pivotal ping-pong match at the ’88 Olympics in front of the entire world, including Ronald and Nancy Reagan, who look plenty pissed (in a funny, old-fashioned bit of intercutting—no Zelig/Gump tricks here). 20 years later, he’s a fat, disheveled has-been (Dan Fogler) doing ping-pong tricks as a dinner theater novelty act. When an F.B.I. agent (George Lopez) enlists him to infiltrate an illegal ping-pong gambling ring run by the Chinese Triad, he must return to the sport. He trains with the legendary blind master Wong (James Hong) and his gorgeous niece Maggie (Maggie Q), a table tennis genius who can wipe out several fearsome male opponents at once—while taking phone orders for Wong’s takeout restaurant.

So if the girl is that badasss, why doesn’t the F.B.I. agent swap out Randy for her? Well, that’s the whole basis for Balls of Fury’s comedy in its first half. The script is initially smart about Mystical Asian Others in American movies and their function as the white man’s healers, redeemers and almost supernatural foes. Hong, who has played virtually every permutation of this figure in over 300 films (and who many Gen-Xers will remember as the fire-breathing villain Lo Pan in Big Trouble in Little China, which, along with The Golden Child, is this film’s spiritual godfather), delivers some suffocatingly funny Wise Master monologues (“Ping-pong is like a prostitute…” spirals into a tortured confession of his woman troubles). Co-writers Robert Ben Garant (who also directed) and Thomas Lennon are great at bringing a heightened movie moment crashing hilariously to earth, as when sinister martial music cuts off when a villain’s henchman stops to ask, sheepishly, for directions to the highway. Later, when Maggie sends Randy off on his journey, she kisses him passionately. Cut to the wide shot, and her legs are coiled around his blubbery waist. Garant and Lennon seem to get it: Movies about the Far East by white males tend to sell the same kind of “happy ending” you get in a Korean massage parlor.

Too bad they don’t take the satire all the way. Once Randy finally enters the lair of ping-pong supervillain Feng (Christopher Walken), the jokes are more scattershot and begin to gently ease Ho’wood’s history of insipid Orientalism off the hook. Randy joins an Enter the Dragon-style tournament of ping-pong. He takes on the world’s greatest pongers in literal death matches: The loser gets a poison dart to the neck, shot from a blow gun by comedienne Aisha Tyler, as a Grace Jonesy nubian amazon. (Among the clutter of weak gags in this section: a bunch of stale homo-panic jokes about Feng’s stable of male sex slaves.) Even though the film is right to show even less concern for coherent plot or motivation as it goes along, it loses traction when the theme lapses into generic silliness rather than running down and assassinating every last Asian stereotype in the movies. Yeah, too bad, because the flick’s first half feels in part like the Chinese Hollywood Shuffle.

Balls of Fury will be worth a DVD glance only because of what some of its performers have done with Garant and Lennon’s sometimes-inspired script. The comedian Patton Oswalt has a grand entrance as a rival player who, when he fails to burst through a paper banner held by cheerleaders, neatly tears it and steps through instead. Terry Crews, the funniest Big Mean Black Man since Tiny Lister, does every big mean black thing except threaten to eat Randy’s children. In a terrycloth headband. Fogler makes a spectacular and sympathetic slob-hero, but when his character’s fortune turns for the better and he tries to throw on some rock star charm, he comes off as an air-guitaring theme park rendition of Jack Black (see the School of Rock Stunt Show!). Lopez mutters some ethnic jokes that probably weren’t in the script, tearing little subversive holes in the process. Hong, meanwhile, seems to enjoy the hell out of trashing the cinematic plantation that’s been his bread and butter all these years. The weakest link turns out to be co-creator Lennon, whose turn as Randy’s lifelong nemesis, German ping-pong team captain Karl Wolfschtagg, is broad, flat, and desperate for laughs.

Finally, there’s Walken. Christopher Walken in faux Mandarin getup and villainous pompadour, furiously playing Sudden Death ping-pong on a rope bridge—shouldn’t that be enough entertainment for a lifetime? Not quite, but watching him essay a Triad kingpin with the voice and attitude of a Vegas casino magnate does bring joy. When the movie’s table tennis death matches get too drawn out, Walken cries from the sidelines, chop chop, people: “We’re missing Antiques Roadshow!”

Steven Boone is a New York-based critic and filmmaker, a contributor to Vinyl Is Heavy and the publisher of the pop culture blog Big Media Vandalism.