Kevin James is one of those actors who is so featureless and bland that he makes Tom Hanks seem, in comparison, positively exotic. With his doughy figure, dad-next-door face, and line delivery that suggests he’s getting ready for the next big football game instead of commanding movies that cost tens of millions of dollars, he is so bereft of personality that you sense that he might just waft off the screen. Usually, though, he’s nestled inside a Russian doll of higher caliber comedic talent, whether it’s Will Smith in “Hitch” or Adam Sandler and his posse in a whole host of movies (including “Grown Ups” and “The Zookeeper“). Teaming him up with someone usually makes his bumbling everyman shtick slightly more palatable. (“Paul Blart: Mall Cop” starred James almost exclusively and is one of his biggest and most unwatchable films.) “Here Comes the Boom,” a semi-watchable but excruciatingly dumb and schmaltzy MMA comedy, stars James as a schlubby goofball who fights professionally to save his school’s music department. It’s the perfect metaphor for James and his career: no matter how much you want him to go down, he defiantly stands tall.
“Here Comes the Boom” starts off as a kind of cuddly “Bad Teacher” clone, with James’ science teacher a once-promising member of the faculty that has instead become a lazy, selfish asshole. He’s constantly late for work and his classroom is a moderately controlled Indonesian prison. He’s friends with the music teacher, though, played by Henry Winkler, although their relationship seems somewhat superficial and strained considering we’re introduced to Winkler’s character as James tries to pass off his school bus duties. During an assembly, though, it’s revealed that budget cuts will force the school to shutter the music program, and running low on ideas, James decides to start entering himself into Mixed Martial Arts competitions, hoping to raise enough money to start the program and save his friend’s job. (Just to lay on the sugary sentimentality extra thick, James and his co-writer Allan Loeb, who worked with the actor on Ron Howard‘s odious “The Dilemma,” make Winkler’s considerably younger wife also pregnant.)
James was a wrestler in college and he seems to think that can leverage himself into a career fighting dudes who are much meaner, tougher, and are inked with tattoos that, if the camera lingered on them, are so scary they would probably push “Here Comes the Boom” into R-rated territory. The rest of the movie is a very long, very soggy, very dull blur. James gets into a ton of fights, mostly losing in spectacularly violent fashion. There’s one such sequence that takes place in the pouring rain that we hope was an homage to the late, great Tony Scott, who staged memorable sports sequences in “The Fan” and “The Last Boy Scout” in similarly inclement weather, but we don’t think director Frank Coraci, a Sandler confederate, is sharp enough to make the reference.
All of the emotional buttons are pushed, with James mentoring a young Filipino student whose father wants her to quit the band so she can help at his restaurant; giving citizenship lessons (one of his students ends up training James for the fights); and wooing a comely school nurse played by Salma Hayek, trying desperately to tone down her va-va-voom sexiness and succeeding (for the most part, although there is a weird moment that brings to mind that bizarre Johnny Depp/Eva Green sex scene from “Dark Shadows” earlier this year – and not in a good way). Along the way the movie makes a halfhearted attempt at commenting on the decaying state of American public schools, using an over-extended science metaphor to really bring the point home, but ultimately the movie is too snuggly and filled with prideful conservatism (one of the last shots is of a billowing American flag, bathed in sunlight) to ever offer too much of a critique.
With a running time of 105 minutes, the movie drags unnecessarily, and many of the fight sequences, which have James being beaten within an inch of his life, feel excessively violent. At one point during the climactic brawl, set against the big Ultimate Fighting Championship battle in Las Vegas, James hits his opponent so hard in the face, so repeatedly, that you half expect it to smash open like the elevator sequence from “Drive.” But with its hardscrabble blue-collar coloring and Boston setting, “Here Comes the Boom” more immediately calls to mind David O. Russell‘s “The Fighter.” Except that “Here Comes the Boom” is less funny, more violent, and almost suffocating in its endless parade of over-the-top cuteness (there are some bits in the last act that push it dangerously close to self-parody). It certainly isn’t as terrible as something like “Grown Ups,” which is less a movie and more a loose collection of vaguely connected scenes arranged, more or less, in an order that suggests a narrative. But it certainly isn’t good, either.
Most of that comes down to James, who despite his hefty frame (which the movie lingers over unnecessarily, particularly in the many scenes where the actor is shirtless), is utterly weightless. He’s a character that is supposed to go through a profound change but is so blank that it’s hard to imagine anything going on internally. Going from the school’s biggest loser teacher to someone that inspires awe in his students should be a protracted and painful process, but James is so lacking in nuance that the change seems to bother him as much as changing the channel on the television does. “Here Comes the Boom” is brightly lit and loudly filled with pump-you-up jams (although, tellingly, James is such a wimp he enters the ring to a Neil Diamond song) and the digital photography, so effectively used in “The Fighter” to mimic Pay-Per-View telecasts, just looks cheap and crummy. For a movie that’s almost exclusively about James hitting people and getting knocked down, “Here Comes the Boom” lacks any impact whatsoever. [C-]