James Goes 'Boom' in Affable, Outlandish MMA Comedy

Directed by: Frank Coraci; Runtime: 105 minutes
Grade: C+

Kevin James reteams with director Frank Coraci and the Happy Madison crew for Here Comes the Boom, an underdog comedy about a guy who throws himself into a sport he knows little about for a worthy cause. Before high-tailing it in the other direction due to thoughts of another Waterboy or Zookeeper, which wouldn't be a groundless or entirely invalid assumption, stay for a moment and consider the possibility that the Coraci-James combo might've cooked up something more assured and conscientious here. There's no denying that it's taken to the same worn-out template; screwball slapstick humor in training montages, clumsy flirts between an awkward hero and his appealing love interest, and a clichéd heightening of the stakes near the end give that away. Yet, the noble foundation it's built upon, about sacrificing for children's needs and the threat of academic lethargy in classrooms, allows its reputable charm to take this zany, hot-blooded throwdown in the MMA world up a step.

James, who has trimmed down and beefed up quite a bit through training, plays high-school biology professor Scott Voss, once a lauded teacher who now arrives late, merely tolerates his sessions, and fruitlessly hits on the school nurse, Bella (Salma Hayek). He's confronted with the opportunity to muster some oomph again, though, when the school is forced to make budget cuts -- and one of its central decisions is to remove the $48,000 music department, headed by a gentle, inspiring conductor, Marty (Henry Winkler). After all other options dry up, and after he watches a UFC fight on television where he learns that the loser made $10,000, he cooks up the idea to get in the ring and pull the money together through failed MMA competitions. Scott, once a wrestler in school, enlists the help of an aspiring US citizen, Niko (Bas Rutten), to show him the ropes so that he won't get demolished in the ring. Thus begins the high-school professor's journey into the realm of hand-to-hand cage fighting.

Despite Coraci and James fighting to make Here Comes the Boom as authentic and considerate as possible, it can't avoid hefty, unsurprising contrivances that knock the wind out of the comedy's simulated realness. You get the idea as soon as the music program's budget is cut without any warning to the department; I don't call into question that similar scenarios do occur, but the hastiness of its delivery renders the moment artificial here, an unfortunate turn of events considering it gets Scott's transformative gears turning. The relationship angle between Scott and Bella piggybacks on that too, leading to an awkward non-chemistry only spruced up by Hayek's disarming presence, her flirtations warming as the teacher rediscovers his gusto. An unnecessary subplot featuring his down-and-out handyman brother (Gary Valentine) and his aspiration to be a chef also redundantly underlines the idea of following one's ambition. We get it: It's cool to defeat the odds for personal and interpersonal progress.

But, I suppose there's no harm in aiming big when you're hurling the inelegant, aging Scott Voss into the fray to literally take a beating for the future of his school's extracurricular programs. Here Comes the Boom has a good bit of fun when it plays with the martial-arts content, where cheeky training sessions involving mattress armor and getting clobbered by numerous foes filter into the fights themselves, which are surprisingly rigorous. The humor here doesn't generate raucous laughs, even moments that probably should; the battles occasionally spark a few chuckles, such as an impromptu fight in the rain and the after-effects of eating old applesauce, but they mostly emphasize Scott's fish-outta-water ungainliness while tumbling around the ring. With that, some restraint can be seen in Coraci's direction, treading the line between common sense and whimsy through well-composed, occasionally gruff competition. No delusions involving multiple Winklers singing "Water Sucks!" on the heads of football players, instead replaced by the twitchy training of an MMA veteran, one-punch knockouts, and the unspoken humor behind a stocky teacher brawling against seasoned fighters.

The urge to cry foul on the unlikelihood of Here Comes the Boom partly surrenders to its noble intentions, where the invigorating tones that driven films like Warrior are repurposed into an optimistic lark about preserving our schools' enrichment and bolstering those stuck in the doldrums. Gloomy blues and oranges in Phil Meheux's cinematography rejuvenate into vibrant, hopeful colors as Scott wrestles closer to his goal, and while very little isn't predictable -- where Scott's headed, where his relationship with Bella is going, and that the stakes will embellish out of control for dramatic effect -- that doesn't stop Kevin James from charmingly pushing forward in an rousing rush of blood and sweat. That gain in both visual and emotional escalation comes at the expense of common sense; the final act ditches most of the realism left for a helping of rip-roaring gratification. Alas, it's difficult not to suspend disbelief and cheer for the reawakened warrior educator, despite having awareness of the situation's absurdity and acknowledging that it missed an opportunity to become something greater.

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