[Film] Remember when Christopher Walken wasn't "Christopher Walken"? I know it's been a while, but think back—back 25 or 30 years ago, to when he was a serious dramatic actor in movies like The Deer Hunter and The Dead Zone. His odd looks—the gaunt, sad-eyed face that make him look like a basset hound after a hunger strike—and tremulous voice made him hard to cast, but he seemed able to do interesting things with nearly everything he was given.
But then, at some point—maybe once he became a regular host on Saturday Night Live, including the guy who demanded "more cowbell"—something shifted. He became a go-to guy for quirky supporting roles, someone who could provide a spark of life where the script itself offered nothing. And so we got Walken in stuff like Poolhall Junkies, Envy, The Country Bears, Gigli, Click—a deadpan breath of fresh air in otherwise irrelevant crap, but essentially playing the same part over and over again.
In Balls of Fury, Walken takes on the role of an obviously-not-Chinese Chinese gangster named Feng—and he becomes the walking incarnation of the film’s hit-and-miss understanding of what’s actually funny versus what’s funny only in theory. The story’s hero, Randy Daytona (Dan Fogler), was once a 12-year-old table tennis prodigy on the verge of international stardom. But one public disgrace changed his life and cost his father his life at Feng’s hands, and 19 years later he’s a Reno novelty act bouncing ping-pong balls off of patrons’ heads. His chance for redemption comes when an FBI agent (George Lopez) invites Daytona to infiltrate Feng’s legendary underground ping-pong tournament—which will require re-learning the sport from the great blind Master Wong (James Hong).
If you’re familiar with the work of writers Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant from either Reno 911! or their 2006 film Let’s Go to Prison, you’re probably acquainted with their unique combination of low-brow gags, improbably weird gay-panic humor and surreal touches. Sometimes they nail it, as the do in the sad desperation of Daytona’s nightclub act. Sometimes they don’t, as with the over-the-top fight sequences involving Maggie Q as Master Wong’s niece. And sometimes they’re just unlucky, considering the idea of subverting sports-movie clichés through an absurdist competition was already nailed by Broken Lizard in last year’s Beerfest.
But mostly, the creative team seems to be aiming for no more ambitious audience response than good will. While Fogler’s a funny find as the gone-to-seed Randy, mostly Balls of Fury cruises on his chubby, scraggly look. Cameo appearances—by Lennon (Reno 911!’s Dangle), Patton Oswalt and Dietrich Bader, among others—serve primarily as “hey, look, it’s that guy” moments. Comedies of premise almost always start out with our amusement at what could happen—and where many of its set-ups are concerned, Balls of Fury too rarely advances past that point.
That notion applies to Walken’s presence as the film’s nominal villain. From the moment he appears—hair slicked back and shiny, adorned in silk robes—Walken brings the promise of some unexpected weirdness. Except that at this point, the weirdness is expected. We’re just waiting to hear what odd bit of dialogue will be given a twist by his halting delivery—and even when it’s something as funky as, “I bid you toodles,” it’s still not quite as amusing as it seems it should be. Balls of Fury is a decent enough diversion as such comedies go, but it just feels a little bit lazy, as though no one got too much farther than how funny it might be to cast Christopher Walken as a Chinese gangster.
For his part, Walken needs to be careful with his career. Where once there was discovery in him playing his droll comic timing against his looks, he’s coming dangerously close to what happened to Leslie Nielsen after a similar late-career shift. There’s a big difference between being funny and being “funny.”
BALLS OF FURY
**1/2 (two and a half out of four stars)
Starring: Dan Fogler, Christopher Walken, George Lopez
Directed by Robert Ben Garant.