Jokes with an over-the-top spin
It's not even Labor Day, but at least one Oscar race is now over. There's best achievement in costume design -- and then there's Christopher Walken's wardrobe in "Balls of Fury." The devil may wear Prada, but Walken's Feng, a Ping-Pong-obsessed triad kingpin, wears outfits that are three parts Fu Manchu to two parts Tammy Faye Bakker -- and, let it be said, he wears them with Vogue-worthy aplomb. It helps that when Walken's character speaks he sounds like a Jackie Mason who's taken elocution lessons.
In a summer notable for the high degree of intelligence (relatively speaking) demonstrated by dumb-guy comedies -- think "Knocked Up" and "Superbad"-- "Balls of Fury" continues the trend. It's an over-the-top tale of redemption, as a onetime Ping-Pong Olympian finds himself doing battle with Feng. The movie flaunts its ridiculousness and offers a relentless string of jokes about blindness, groin-bashing, and bodily odors (Lady Speed Stick twice serves as a punch line). But it's also amiable, nicely observed, and surprisingly shrewd (both the Lady Speed Stick jokes are killers). "Balls of Fury" also scores points, so to speak, for coming up with its own sports context. "Talladega Nights" had NASCAR. "Blades of Glory" had the world of figure skating. Ping-Pong has . . . rec rooms?
Director Robert Ben Garant, whose first film was last spring's "Reno 911!: Miami," isn't exactly a master of fluid pacing. But thudding is kept to a minimum, thanks to a steady stream of good, if frequently punishing, gags. It's often a case of follow the bouncing bodies as well as the bouncing balls. Garant can thank himself and fellow scriptwriter Thomas Lennon. Their previous collaborations include the "Reno" movie, "Night at the Museum," and "The Pacifier."
Garant can also thank his actors. Walken is Walken, a performer as effortlessly masterful as he is effortlessly strange. George Lopez, as an FBI agent on Walken's trail, maintains a splendid deadpan -- or he does until the final reel, when he can no longer restrain his inner comedian. James Hong, as a blind table-tennis grandmaster, pretty much steals the show. "Ping-Pong isn't the Macarena," he disgustedly tells a pupil. Sun Tzu showing up on "SportsCenter" couldn't sound more authoritative. And Sun Tzu never fell down an elevator shaft.
The grandmaster's pupil is that former table-tennis prodigy, one Randy Daytona. If there were an Oscar category for best achievement in character names, that would be settled now, too. As Daytona, Dan Fogler looks like the illegitimate son Sam Kinison never (?) had. It's hard to say which sticks out farther: Fogler's belly or his frizzy hair. Perpetually wearing a Def Leppard T-shirt, he figuratively bumps into anything within 10 feet of him. Schlubbiness has rarely been so forthright.
Daytona bears the scars of his upset defeat at the Seoul Olympics at the hands of an odiously over-the-top East German -- a kind of Teutonic Apollo Creed -- played by Lennon. As a result of the loss, Feng had Daytona's father killed (don't ask). Nineteen years later, we find Daytona fetched up in Reno -- which threatens to become for Garant and Lennon what Monument Valley was for John Ford -- where he's doing a Ping-Pong lounge act. That's where Lopez's agent shows up, seeking Daytona's help in getting Feng.
Saying much more would spoil the plot, such as it is. Do be warned that if you see "Balls of Fury" you can expect never again to keep a straight face when hearing some athlete declare "I'm going to Disney World!" at the end of the Super Bowl. Oh, and it was Mary Ann Bozek who designed the costume. It would be nice to think, though, that Walken had a hand in the accessorizing.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.