THE PROBLEM of underfunded city schools, soberly addressed in "Won't Back Down," gets slightly different treatment in "Here Comes the Boom."
This one stars Kevin James as a high school teacher who moonlights on the underground mixed martial arts circuit to raise money for another teacher (Henry Winkler) and his endangered music program.
A problem with "Won't Back Down" was its surplus of speeches and exposition. You won't get any of that in "Boom," a good-natured, family-friendly film that trades largely on James, a talented physical comedian, getting bounced around the ring.
The movie has been compared to "Warrior," but its story of a goofball fighting on behalf of children really owes more to "Nacho Libre," ("When you are a man, sometimes you wear stretchy pants.").
>James is in his element here - getting the stuffing kicked out of him in low-rent, chicken wire venues, slowly rediscovering a talent (his character, like James himself, is a former high school wrestler), rediscovering his commitment to teaching and using his notoriety to impress the school nurse (Salma Hayek), who probably has the education system's largest backlog of boys with sore throats.
James gets a lot of help from a large ensemble, led by Bas Rutten, a former MMA star who becomes the teacher's trainer. The two have great chemistry, as they should - Rutten is James' trainer in real life.
Rutten is a natural ham, and his off-kilter, upbeat, Euro-kook personality is one of the movie's wild cards, and keeps a story that relies heavily on formula from being stale.
There are generous and offbeat supporting turns for James' brother, Gary Valentine, and for the Neil Diamond song ("Holly Holy") that becomes the teacher's calling card in the ring, after he discovers that rapper Nelly's "Boom" belongs to a bigger, stronger fighter.
"Here Comes the Boom" ends up in Las Vegas, with a big-money winner-take-all match that could solve all the school's problems, or end the teacher's life. Here, the screenplay could have learned something form the original "Rocky," but no biggie. In the movie's context of harmless wish-fulfillment, tapping out is out of the question.
Contact movie critic Gary Thompson at 215-854-5992 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at philly.com/keepitreel.