Here Comes The Boom
Kevin James, having graduated from his successful TV sitcom "The King of Queens," has found himself a niche in the movies. He makes comfortable, sort dumb, sort of crude, overall-middlebrow comedies that strain neither cerebral cortex nor funny bone, but do deliver enough laughs to make them profitable (if forgettable; quick show of hands, who remembers "Paul Blart: Mall Cop?" Anyone? Anyone?).
With that in mind, it’s something of a pleasant shock to find that there’s a little more substance to James’ latest outing, "Here Comes the Boom." James stars as a high school biology teacher Scott Voss, a former star of the Boston school system who has burned out and tuned out. He presides over a listless class with zero passion or interest, telling the only student who actually wants to learn something that it would be pointless for him to teach her because she’ll never actually use any of the knowledge he’d have to impart.
At first, there’s a fear that this is going to be a retread of the recently-released "Won’t Back Down," given that Voss is a slightly more likeable version of the clock-watching bad teachers who lurk at the fringes of that film. Indeed, when Voss mentions having heard the Tom Petty song of the same name, it’s enough to cause a reflexive shudder: Oh, God, please! Not more prettily high-flying speeches rendered by improbably articulate parents to stone-faced bureaucrats! If Maggie Gyllenhaal couldn’t pull it off, how will Kevin James?
The answer: He doesn’t have to. When Voss faces off with school system bureaucrats like Principal Betcher (Greg Germann), it’s not in polished screenwriter-speak. It’s a half-rant that boils down to pure frustration. The school is in the red, and targets the music program, run by kindly Marty Streb (Henry Winkler), for elimination (the sports program, with its yearly allotment of brand-new equipment and uniforms, is untouchable).
Here, we seemingly take a trip through a narrative wormhole, bypassing such elemental questions as whether and how Voss and Streb are really such good friends that Voss would volunteer to spearhead an effort to raise the $48,000 needed to keep the music program for another year. For whatever reason, Voss the classroom burnout suddenly becomes Voss the stand-up guy who’ll take on an impossible task for a pal.
But where to come up with that kind of moolah? Voss takes on a second job, teaching a citizenship class to immigrants, but the pay is miserable. That’s when he meets mixed martial arts coach Niko (real life mixed martial arts star Bass Rutten), and realizes there’s major cash to be made banging heads with ripped opponents in octagonal rings.
More narrative glossing-over; Voss was a high school wrestler; this somehow makes him a force to be reckoned with against highly trained, super-fit professional brawlers?
Again, whatever. We blow past such concerns to get to the real deal: Kevin James being tossed around and clobbered. The physical comedy is well done, and the physical drama is not neglected (though it maybe underplayed); Voss comes home after his matches with sprains, cuts, contusions, and dislocations. School nurse Bella Flores (Salma Hayek) patches him up, fending off his lame pickup lines and creepy come-ons the whole while... until she doesn’t.
Let’s not even get into the scene where Voss and Bella have their first date. It veers from sweet to absurd in a snap, and to no useful effect. From then on, Bella is something of a sap, which is too bad; she was much more vital and vibrant as the smart, savvy woman who wouldn’t let the likes of Voss near her. Oh, well.
The movie is rescued from its stale plot (win the cash! Save the day!) by James and Winkler, who enjoy an odd-couple dynamic, and by the film’s brisk pace. We don’t stop to think about the story too much, and that prevents us from seeing through to its ridiculous premise. On the other hand, this film succeeds where "Won’t Back Down" stumbled, taking on multiple social issues (education, immigration, our failing economy) with a deft touch that doesn’t preach, but does, in its way, invite reflection.
Just why is it, after all, that winning a single slug-fest on TV pays as much as a teacher’s salary for an entire year? Where are our priorities? "Here Comes the Boom" refuses to halt the puerile antics of its ring-fighting (and food-fighting) stars for a serious discussion into this sort of issue, but the question hangs there, patiently waiting for the audience to ask it on their own. The movie doesn’t fire on all cylinders, but it fires full force with what it’s got; dumb fun, clever strategy. All in all, it works.