October 11, 2012

Kevin James (center) stars with MMA veterans Mark Munoz (left) and Bas Rutten (right) in the comedy Here Comes The Boom. (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

“Oh, my GOD!”

That was the gasping, horrified reaction of the woman sitting a row behind me during a screening of Here Comes the Boom the other night. The comic film, which stars Kevin James as a teacher who in an effort to save his school from financial ruin puts himself on a sure path to bodily ruin by turning to professional mixed martial arts as a fundraising endeavor, had barely begun and we were getting our very first glimpse of what goes on in the cage. It likely was this woman’s first glimpse ever at cage fighting, judging by her reaction. She was aghast.

This got me to wondering what the reaction will be once Boom opens in theaters nationwide on Friday. Surely a lot of MMA fans will flock to their local megaplexes, but sitting right alongside them will be unsuspecting folks who’ve simply seen James on the marquee -- and Salma Hayek and Henry Winkler, too -- and bought a ticket. Are these moviegoers going to end up choking on their popcorn?

This was the lens through which I was watching the movie until, nearly an hour in, James’ character -- a former collegiate wrestler who was taking his lumps on the minor-league MMA circuit -- suddenly changed his luck with a wild haymaker that floored a fighter he had no business being in the cage with. It was a totally unrealistic moment (unless you happened to have seen a woozy Cheick Kongo do much the same thing in a UFC fight last year as Pat Barry was moving in for the kill), but that didn’t stop the theater from erupting in cheers. This crowd was unabashedly invested in the moment, and that included Ms. Oh My God behind me. She no longer was aghast. She was into the fighting. Here Come the Boom had won.

It had won me over, too, by then. Early on, I’d been as horrified as the woman behind me, though for a different reason. What reason? Well, let’s just say this film is no Citizen Kane. Its launching point is bogged down by all of the vacuous trappings of Hollywood drivel in plot and character development. Or should I say caricature development? From evil school administrators to bored students and even more blasé faculty, there’s so much broad-brush painting here that the movie could have been written and directed by Benjamin Moore.

But Boom never stops fighting until it’s closed in on you and has you in tears. At times it’s from the poignancy of a film built around an uplifting commitment to what’s valuable in life. More than anything, though, the tears shed are from laughter. This is a funny movie, thanks in large part to James but also to Winkler, who’s not your father’s Arthur Fonzarelli here. Once this docile music teacher becomes a cornerman in the MMA scheme, he transforms into something approximating the Grand Wizard of Wrestling.

The true revelation in the cast, however, is Bas Rutten. The former MMA star, a UFC heavyweight champion more than a decade ago, takes his portrayal of a fighter-turned-trainer to its comic extreme without going over the top. His disco street fighting class -- “Knee to the face! Victory dance!” -- is an aerobic classic. If Kevin James could shift from actor to fighter as convincingly as Bas Rutten goes the other way, the former King of Queens star would be wearing a UFC crown.

MMA fans are treated to lots of fight scenes, which are exhilarating despite being no more plausible than Rocky. There also are cameos by UFC figures such as Jason “Mayhem” Miller, Mark Muñoz and Joe Rogan. Chael Sonnen meets an appropriate fate. Herb Dean would never referee again if he let a fight go on like he does in the climactic scene. But that scene had our theater riveted, including my 9-year-old son.

Afterward, in fact, my boy called his mom during our drive home and reported that Here Comes the Boom was one of the greatest movies he’d ever seen. When he got off the phone, I was curious to know what had so captivated him, other than staying out late with Dad and a trip to his favorite burrito joint.

Me: Did you like the movie because you’re a UFC fan?

Aaron: Yeah, and they had lots of UFC fights and they looked real. Dad, do you think when they made the movie they just had the guys fight for real?

Me: No, I don’t think they’d do that in making a movie, buddy, but it’s good that it looked real to you. Did anything not look realistic?

Aaron: Bruce Buffer’s hair.

Me: What?

Aaron: It was pushed down more than usual. Usually it’s more puffy when he's introducing the fighters.

Me: Anything else?

Aaron: And there was no Dana White. He’s always there when the UFC is on TV, but in the movie they had two guys with hair talking.

Me: Yeah, but people who don’t know the UFC probably won’t notice. Do you think those people -- non-MMA fans -- will like the movie?

Aaron: Well, if people want to go to the movie theater on a rainy day, they’re going to ask, “Hmm, what are the new movies?” And maybe they don’t want to see Hotel Transylvania or Frankenweenie or something like that. So they can watch Here Comes the Boom and get a lot of laughs.

-- Jeff Wagenheim

Here Comes the Boom opens in theaters nationwide on Friday. Rated PG. Runs 1:45. Directed by Frank Coraci.

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