'Welcome to the underbelly of Ping-Pong," says the sage Chinese master - make that the blind sage Chinese master - in the latest merrily stupid sports comedy, Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant's Balls of Fury. A flagrant steal of the Bruce Lee martial arts classic Enter the Dragon, this goofball farce substitutes table tennis for kung fu, as a skilled paddler infiltrates a crime king's lavish lair, using Ping-Pong prowess as a calling card.
Dan Fogler, a Tony winner for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, makes his segue from stage to screen, starring as Randy Daytona, a Ping-Pong champion gone to seed, and offered redemption when he's recruited by the FBI. Fogler, a comic actor in the tradition of John Belushi and Jack Black (slobby, eye-rolling, funny), carries Balls of Fury fairly effortlessly, and Christopher Walken does his shtick as the villainous Feng - a gun-running Ping-Pong obsessive whose wardrobe represents a sartorial mind-meld between latter-day Elvis and the most flamboyant Fu Manchu.
James Hong, who has gamely parodied his countrymen in Seinfeld and Airplane!, plays the Chinatown restaurateur and Ping-Pong guru Wong. He offers kernels of wisdom to his paunchy protege - and runs him through a rigorous training program that includes locking Daytona in a freezer with a swarm of bees and a fly swatter. A lithe Maggie Q is Randy's improbable love interest - she plays Maggie, Master Wong's niece, and Master Wong's number one student. Her backhand is to die for.
And George Lopez is onboard as the FBI guy who gets Daytona to go undercover, and then tags along on his adventures in Feng's palatial Central American digs.
Co-writers Garant and Lennon are the perps behind Reno 911!, and while Balls of Fury is slightly more sophisticated in its comic strategies, "slightly" remains the operative word. (Lennon also co-stars as Randy Daytona's long-ago Olympics nemesis, East German Karl Wolfschtagg.) Garant directs, deploying furious Ping-Pong volleys and spurious pastiches of the underdog genre.
Even at just 90 minutes, Balls of Fury - with its caricatures of the Asian underworld, with its G-man malarkey and gay jokes (Feng keeps an all-boy bevy of sex slaves) - begins to outstay its welcome.
But when the tournament that brings together the world's best Ping-Pong players begins, it's hard not to laugh as Daytona realizes the fate awaiting the loser in each round.
"You killed him!" he yelps to Walken's Feng, as another Ping-Ponger bites the dust.
"What part of 'sudden death' didn't you understand?" comes the actor's dry riposte.
Read Steven Rea's blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies
Balls of Fury **1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Robert Ben Garant. With Dan Fogler, George Lopez, James Hong, Maggie Q and Christopher Walken. Distributed by Rogue Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (profanity, comic violence, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org.