Films — at the highest level of achievement — illuminate, entertain, even influence events. They usually don’t aim that high. Movies mostly reinforce our existing preferences for drama, romance, horror — or in this case, something for my personal Bad Film Festival. Candidates embrace remarkably poor acting, offensive story lines and unconvincing special effects. “Humanoids from the Deep” comes to mind. Special examples show some heart through the layer of cheese; amiable junk entertainment. On that level “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story” remains a Bad Film Favorite. Challengers seem drawn to summertime releases, and this Labor Day Weekend served up “Balls of Fury.” In this Smackdown! of revenge comedies will “Balls of Fury” steal Bad Film Fame from “Dodgeball” — or just fall flat?
FBI agent Ernie Rodriguez (George Lopez) recruits ping-pong prodigy Randy Daytona (Dan Fogler) to infiltrate the operations of criminal mastermind Feng (Christopher Walken). Randy and Feng share some history: Randy lost to Feng’s protege in the 1988 Olympics and Feng had Randy’s dad rubbed out to settle gambling debts. By the time the FBI reaches Randy he’s reduced to performing ping-pong tricks in Reno casinos; payback sounds like an attractive option. “Balls of Fury” takes jabs at kung-fu movies, Asians, homosexuals and disabled people. Randy has a thing for the music of Def Leppard. Screenwriters Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant give Randy a highly unlikely love interest. You can easily fill in the rest.
The Defending Champion
In “Dodgeball,” Peter LeFleur (Vince Vaughn) can’t make the lease payments on his rundown gym, Average Joe’s. One of his misfit clients says Peter can save the gym by winning the big dodgeball tournament in Las Vegas. Bad guy White Goodman (Ben Stiller) owns a yuppie gym and wants Average Joe’s. He and LeFleur have designs on attorney Kate Veatch (Christine Taylor). In the hands of screenwriter Rawson Marshall Thurber geeks, gays and the disabled become comedy roadkill on the way to Las Vegas. You can guess how this one turns out.
You shouldn’t expect to change your life judging the best of the bad. These films don’t break new ground but that doesn’t seem to bother the filmmakers: They plow the same territory — “Balls” even parodies a bit from “Dodgeball.” Both movies rise or fall on their lead actors. Vince Vaughn plays a charming underachiever. Ben Stiller offers a character as self absorbed as his role in “Zoolander.” Audiences either enjoy his comedic sensibilities or they don’t see his films. By contrast, it’s hard to warm up to Randy Daytona in “Balls of Fire.” Dan Fogler’s acting skill cannot make his character better than vaguely repellent. Christopher Walken as Feng apparently relishes the risk of shooting his career in the foot. His portrayal is funny and very, very odd. Both films found an audience: “Balls of Fury” will earn more than $12 million this opening weekend; “Dodgeball” brought in ten times that amount domestically.
For two movies so similar in construction and comedic intent, does one grab the spotlight at the Bad Film Festival? You bet.
And the winner..
The Defending Champion easily keeps its place on the marquee. It’s not as though “Balls of Fury” doesn’t try hard. Actually, it tries too hard. Parody succeeds when it smiles while skewering the subject. “Balls”
is more earnest than funny; it needs more than Christopher Walken chewing the scenery in a wig and silk suit. This ping pong comedy doesn’t bounce.
“Dodgeball” integrates its minor charms effectively. It gets real laughs with flying wrenches and the send up of ESPN SportCenter. Even cameo appearances by the likes of Lance Armstrong, Chuck Norris, William Shatner and David Hasselhoff are well placed. The supporting cast gives the oddball characters likable dimension. Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller wear their roles easily. When you attend my Bad Film Festival, you’ll get the real thing — our winner, “Dodgeball.”