'Balls of Fury' Takes the Ping Out of Pong

Dan Fogler weighs down an already lame comedy about a crime ring behind a Ping-Pong tournament.
Dan Fogler weighs down an already lame comedy about a crime ring behind a Ping-Pong tournament. (By Gemma La Mana -- Rogue Pictures Via Associated Press)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Some see the glass as nine-tenths empty; I see it as one-tenth full. So I will begin with some nice things concerning "Balls of Fury," the Ping-Pong comedy opening today.

The nicest thing is the Asian American actress known as Maggie Q, who has in two earlier American films -- "Mission Impossible III" and "Live Free or Die Hard" -- been little more than incidental eye candy. In "Balls of Fury" she's actually entrusted with a part, and she turns out to be spunky, sarcastic, graceful, athletic and entirely likable. In fact, the darling gal is absolutely adorable, and one wishes the movie had taken more advantage of her vitality. Every time she's on-screen, it sparkles; when she leaves, it droops unless . . .

Nice thing No. 2 appears, and that would be the great Christopher Walken, slumming as an international gangster named Feng with a Ping-Pong obsession so intense that he convenes a world championship death match. This is nowhere near one of Walken's great outside-the-box performances, to be treasured long after memories of the movie itself have vanished. He basically does a Fu Manchu thing here, with a pile of sleek black hair well lubricated in crankcase oil, and some froggy-eye glasses. Nothing original, nothing outrageous (given what must have been lame instructions from director Ben Garant of "Reno 911!" fame but still, it's Chris Walken and even half-asleep he's fascinating. He carries the picture along with . . .

Nice thing No. 3, the comedian George Lopez as an FBI agent responsible for infiltrating a crime ring behind the Ping-Pong-to-the-death tourney. Lopez, like Madam Q and Honorable Walken, has a vivid presence and, even laid back and talking with Audie Murphy's Texas accent, he brings a stability to the film the others can play off (even if they usually don't). What a great straight man and how nice if he were teamed with a great quipster or someone who knew how to use his calm stylings.

Alas, that ends the very short list of what works. As for what doesn't, try this: the rest of the movie.

"Balls of Fury" has an interesting conceit never quite delivered upon. It takes the standard kung-fu action plot and reconstrues it with Ping-Pong -- "table tennis," more formally -- as the zone of conflict. It has all the hallmarks of late '70s kung-fu action, with outlandish villains and garish costumes and colors and clearly over-exaggerated action sequences. It is meant, I suppose, as some kind of parody, but it's nowhere near clever enough to bring off the sophistication of actual parody, as did, say, the Zucker/Zucker/Abrahams boys in their "Airplane" and "Naked Gun" movies.

The plot has our hero -- one Randy Daytona -- as the would-be world champ who was humiliated and disgraced in the '88 Olympics. Now grown to manhood (and played by heavyweight hair-pie Dan Fogler), he is recruited by the FBI to infiltrate Feng's tournament on the suspicion that another plot is afoot. Once there, he realizes that his only means of survival is to win the tournament, where, of course, he will be opposed at the end by the then-East German who defeated him in '88.

But whoever decided Dan Fogler could front a movie? Heavy, clumsy, more a rocker than an athlete, he's by no means a gifted comic actor; this role would have been perfect for the young John Belushi or Chris Farley -- someone who could show surprising agility and speed beneath the weight. Fogler's just fat and slow, and when the camera tricks give him a world-class table tennis player's moves, it looks fraudulent.

Then there's the racism. These are ancient Asian stereotypes, complete with "concubines" lounging around the set in kimonos split up to their hipbones, dragon lady makeup, very high heels and cigarette holders. I am a reliable indicator on this issue: Whenever I am titillated by a woman in a film, you may be sure it's sexist, racist and witless.

Finally, there's the Pong itself. These guys think it's funny, ho ho ho, and a lot of the humor turns on Pong jocks chasing high bouncers into pillars or down elevator shafts. But the fact is that any sport played at the world level demands extraordinary athleticism -- speed, discipline, courage, stamina, fortitude and extreme hand-eye coordination -- and that includes Pong no less than catching or throwing footballs in the NFL. The filmmakers make fun of it, when they should use their film as a platform by which to show its grace and power. Like . . . who do they think they are?

Balls of Fury (90 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for crude and sex-related humor and profanity.

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