Going into a ping-pong-powered espionage movie that features Christopher Walken as a geisha-wigged ‘pong-nut crime lord called Feng, one naturally fears it’ll be a film that consists of little more than its kooky premise, in the manner of “Snakes on a Plane.” “Balls of Fury” is a bit better than that, though: It has considerable comic brio and a pretty high laugh quotient.
The movie’s central asset is its star, Dan Fogler, a Tony-winning stage actor whose growing film resume includes last year’s “School for Scoundrels.” Playing Randy Daytona, a onetime child ping-pong phenom gone to seed, Fogler effectively deploys his roly-poly disarray without crossing the line into abrasive slobbishness; he has sharp timing and a nice line in lovable bafflement. Tracked down to the cheesy dinner theatre where he does a very unlikely ping-pong act (the paddle work throughout the picture — it has to be CGI, doesn’t it? — is pretty funny in itself), Randy is recruited by an FBI agent (George Lopez) to ramp up his ‘pong chops, get back in the game, and battle his way into an underground tournament soon to be held by Feng at his remote jungle lair.
Randy is assisted in his quest by Master Wong (the iconic James Hong), a blind ping-pong sage whose Zen intuition is as dubious as his ascetic selflessness. (“Bring only your strength, your honor, and a check for 300 dollars,” he tells his new student.) Also lending a hand in Randy’s training is Wong’s beautiful niece, Maggie (Maggie Q, of “Live Free or Die Hard”), who brings multi-butt-kicking kung-fu moves to the table (she can also slam back sizzling serves with her face).
After some cute (if overextended) preliminaries — like a match with a fearsome opponent called “the Dragon,” who turns out to be a pouty schoolgirl — Randy and his team finally penetrate the evil Feng’s jungle redoubt (passing through a courtyard full of ferocious ‘pong players that amusingly echoes the old SPECTRE training camp in “From Russia with Love”). Soon Feng himself appears — climbing out of a slave-borne sedan chair in elaborate Fu Manchu drag, whispering to a flunky, “How’s my collar?” — and makes it clear, as the games begin, that “sudden death” will not be a metaphorical term.
The picture’s light, quirky tone may feel familiar to fans of “Reno: 911!”; several veterans of that series worked on this film, including writer-directors Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon (who also plays a pissy German ‘pong diva). They’ve come up with something that’s a little more substantial than just big-screen TV, though. The movie has a slightly gritty, ’70s look and an enjoyably offbeat structure (one of its funniest sequences flowers unexpectedly, when Randy is offered the sexual comforts of Feng’s house concubines, and they all turn out to be big muscle-bound men).
But while Fogler carries the film with solid assurance (and lots of craggy comic support from Hong), there are low-energy moments of the sort often associated with low budgets. And Walken gives a performance that — for him — is fairly rote: We expect the man to be outré, and of course he is — but only in the way we expect, no more.
Still, he is Christopher Walken, and this is a ping-pong kung-fu spy movie, and in this annually awkward film-going interlude — with the blockbusters of summer behind us and the big fall heavyweights still a ways off — that’s a fairly appealing combo.
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