Kevin James and 'Here Comes The Boom' director Frank Coraci aren't trying to give Akira Kurosawa films a run for their money. It's not the business they are in and couldn't match the legendary Japanese director if they tried. Take one look at the movies James and Coraci have worked on by themselves or together, e.g. The Zookeeper, and one instantly realizes advanced cinema isn't an objective or goal they're after.
That's why it's at least unfair or perhaps unhelpful to judge James' new mixed martial arts movie under serious scrutiny or criteria. They never attempted to make anything serious, they know it isn't serious and don't need it to be to accomplish their goals.
It is fair, however, to evaluate James' movie on what he clearly set out to do: elicit laughs from the average moviegoer and promote the sport of MMA. Under those considerations, the movie is a modest success.
First, the laughs. I'll state outright this movie seemed to almost be a light-hearted drama with moments of levity sprinkled in rather than a 'comedy' as such. The characters are likeable enough given the nature of the film and acting performances from supporting cast such as Henry Winkler and MMA's own Bas Rutten provide a reasonable boost of eccentric character depth. James, too, is enjoyable in his role as a high school biology teacher trying to fight to earn money to compensate for budget cuts. But charming isn't tantamount to humorous and James' character is heavy on the former, absent on the latter. As an aside, the contrast between the outrageously talented Kevin James stand-up comedian and Kevin James movie actor in terms of ability to draw out earnest guffaws from wide swathes of the public never ceases to leave me puzzled.
With respect to this particular movie it should be noted the disparity in reactions between media or critics and fan audiences could not be wider. At the advance screening I attended earlier this week, I sat in a section roped off for reviewing media. On the other side of the theater were average members of a movie audience. Where my critics section kept mostly silent during the movie's various attempts at comedy, the rest of the attending audience howled with laughter. Looking at the responses from the website RottenTomatoes.com, which measures the reactions from the critics' community separate from and in addition to that of normal audiences, critics pan the movie with a poor 43% while audiences give it high praise at 83%. Remember: this ain't Kurosawa and it isn't trying to be.
All of this leads us to the second clear aim of the film, namely, the use of MMA as a vehicle to carry the story while promoting the sport itself. It is on this level where the film positively shines.
While fictional and highly improbable as story capable of being believed, the plot of 'Here Comes The Boom' is no less implausible than that of 'Warrior'. In fact, they're hugely similar. In both cases, a protagonist (in both films it's a teacher) uses mixed martial arts competitions as a means of generating financial compensation to solve a larger problem affecting those they love or are close to. In both cases, the protagonist has an unknown background related to MMA that makes their unlikely ascendancy a touch more believable. In both films, the protagonist gains not only the financial reward they were seeking, but in the process develops closer and more meaningful bonds with those who previously existed on the periphery of their lives.
The central difference between 'Here Comes The Boom' and 'Warrior' as it relates to being palatable is James never takes himself or the film too seriously. Where 'Warrior' tried to surf on an outrageous, fictional story to push a larger narrative, James is merely trying to provide an hour and 45 minutes of entertainment for the general population.
James' treatment of MMA is arguably the best of any film to date. Admittedly, much of that comes from the access and blessing he achieved from the UFC to use their brand as they basically exist in reality for the film's purposes. But it's more than that, too. Even if their method of explaining gradients was paint by the numbers, 'Here Comes The Boom' tries to define the hierarchy of MMA from the backyard regional show to the UFC for uninitiated audiences. "This is bottom-level MMA," Rutten says when James' character asks him why there's a chicken loose in the warm-up area of his first fight. The hand in glove of it all might produce eye rolls from cynical MMA hardcores, but being vigilant enough to look after this issue matters. Trying to ensure audiences who may not fully appreciate MMA's various levels of competition understand the distinctions is no small or dismissible task.
James also deserves credit for trying to make his character's climb up the MMA ladder relatively believable. The comedian was noticeably slimmer for the role, hit pads in various montages in such a way that one knew he'd been practicing and sold (to the best of his ability, anyway) the athleticism of it all less by his acts and more by contrasting what he could do with 'the real thing'.
Yet, one can't help but feel this may have contributed to the light load of humor the movie suffers from. James' stand-up is famous for many reasons, physical comedy being among them. And not simply physical comedy per se, but the version of it where portly men recognize and accept their dimensions all while struggling to be nimble. James once famously said - and the real comedy comes from the marriage of words with the visual presentation - his only real fitness goal is to not have his belly jiggle when he brushes his teeth. These aren't merely 'fat jokes', but jokes that come from self-identification as overweight. Because he was forced to be as fit as possible, James loses his ability to traffic in the very comedy related to his corpulent identity where he often excels.
Unlike Kurosawa, there isn't homage to the ideal hero or heroine in this movie. There is no real praise of the warrior class, no larger message or undercurrents of note. This is just a basic story in a basic format with relatively basic aims. Whether or not one finds it humorous, though, isn't necessarily the central issue. Plenty of moviegoers will like it. More importantly, the film preserves the integrity of the sport even when wading into waters of cartoonish attempts at humor. At every juncture, MMA is neither mistreated nor misrepresented. Even if the film doesn't give you huge laughs, the treatment of the sport should, at a minimum, give you peace of mind.