[Full Disclosure: While writing Tapped Out, my agent asked me to come up with a list of comedy actors that could potentially play me. My top pick was Kevin James, who has been a MMA fanatic for years. Then I found out he was already in production on his own untitled MMA movie, and my heart sank. When my agent tried to shop Tapped Out around town, the studio execs said, “Hmm, a funny book about a middle-aged, overweight author, who takes up MMA to earn enough money to get married? Isn’t Kevin James making a comedy about a middle-aged, overweight high school teacher, who takes up MMA to earn enough money to save his school’s music department?” And that was the end of that.
The fact that Kevin James beat me to the punch probably cost me tens of thousands of dollars. So I went into the advanced screening bitterly hating this movie. And yet, the only possibility of me ever selling the movie rights to my book is if Here Comes The Boom does so well at the box office that Hollywood decides MMA comedies are the next big thing. If it tanks, like Warrior did, then all hope is gone. So here is a review from a writer who bitterly resents the very idea of this movie but desperately hopes it is a huge success.]
Kevin James, a comedian whose stand-up routines are often dark and angry, has built a post-King of Queens movie career—from “Hitch” ever onwards—playing loveable losers, schlubbs with hearts of gold. Any hope that he might use the opportunity of MMA, a sport premised on its “as real as it gets” primal nature, to stretch his brand into more subversive territory are dashed by Here Comes The Boom’s saccharine premise: a burnout biology teacher decides to rescue his high school’s music department by taking up cage fighting. Say what? It isn’t even his department, and he barely seems to know the music teacher, played by former-Fonzie Henry Winkler.
What follows is a mash-up of a Hallmark movie and an UFC infomercial. Kevin takes the kind of beatings in a series of underground fights—skillfully and realistically filmed—that would make Mahatma Gandhi go, “Whoa dude, I wouldn’t have suffered that much to free India.” In the masochistic process, he inspires his students and fires up the romantic interest of the hottie school nurse, played by Salma Hayek with enough good humor and cleavage to keep this creaky ship from sinking under the weight of all the processed cheese slathered over it like a MGM Grand extra large nachos.
For MMA fans the fun of this movie is the cameos. Chael Sonnen pissed after losing to a kimura. Joe Rogan trying not to laugh as he tells Kevin he’s good enough to earn a shot in the UFC. And of course, Mayhem Miller, who plays Lucky Patrick in the movie and has continued to play him on Twitter and during an interview with Ariel Helwani, which is especially bizarre, because Mayhem has zero lines. After a short fight where Kevin knocks him out with a lucky punch, he pukes in Unlucky Patrick’s face. (Perhaps this is why Mayhem got naked in a church—flashbacks to that day of shooting created an overwhelmed urge to clean body and soul.)
But the best reason to see this flick is Bas Rutten, who is much beloved by all of us who report on the sport. After years spent toiling away at the edges of Hollywood in walk-on TV roles and micro-budgeted action flicks (The Eliminator), his long-standing friendship with Kevin James has finally given him his big break. His role as a former fighter turned boxercize instructor—a sly satire of Dana White?—is by far the funniest part of this movie. With his manic energy and well-honed El Guapo persona, Bas chews up the scenery, stealing nearly every scene he is in. Here’s to hoping this movie makes him the European kickboxing equivalent of Jackie Chan to Van Damme’s Bruce Lee.
For his part, Kevin James—looking like Fedor Emelianenko after a two-week, all-you-can-eat Mediterranean cruise—is convincing as an ex-collegiate wrestler turned MMA fighter. While working the pads with Mark DellaGrotte, slipping punches and blasting roundhouse kicks, he looked competent enough to me for the amateur circuit. And James is an appealing underdog. By the time he steps into the arena for his first UFC fight and sees his high school’s cherubic music students playing his walk-in song, my Grinch’s heart grew three sizes. Or maybe it was heartburn from the nachos.
(Matthew Polly is the author of Tapped Out and American Shaolin and is taking time away from writing a book about some guy called Bruce Lee to entertain us as the Fightlinker guest blogger for the month of October. Don’t forget to check out his other stuff and buy a copy of Tapped Out, now in paperback!)