Review originally published in S&S January 2013
Synopsis: When budget cuts threaten his school’s popular music programme, 42-year-old biology teacher Scott Voss volunteers to raise the $48,000 required to keep inspirational music teacher Marty Streb in work. Realising that even the losers at Mixed Martial Arts events get paid for their pains, Scott – who was a first division wrestler in his college days – turns to Niko, a Dutch student in his adult citizenship class who also happens to be an MMA trainer, for help in a losing streak. After several semi-lucrative defeats, Scott decides it might be faster, and easier on his body, just to win. Impressed by Scott’s tenacity, a professional trainer agrees to teach him offense. As Scott works his way up the MMA ranks, his victories cause him to abandon his reengage with his teaching, galvanising his pupils and capturing the attention of school nurse Bella – who has for years been rebuffing his advances. A last-minute dropout leads to Scott being invited to a top division Ultimate Fighting Championship match in Vegas against reigning champion Ken Dietrich. Informed that his accumulated winnings have been embezzled by the school’s Vice Principal, Scott must defeat Ken against all odds for the full $50,000 prize money. Inspired by the presence of his own school’s orchestra at the match, Scott eventually wins the fight – and Bella’s heart – over three punishing rounds.
Review: “Is this the best plan you could come up with?” asks school nurse Bella (Salma Hayek), when biology teacher Scott Voss (Kevin James) proposes entering a series of low-end Mixed Martial Arts tournaments to raise the $48,000 required to stop beloved music teacher Marty Streb (Henry Winkler) being retrenched at his budget-stretched school. “Crazy,” Bella concludes, knowing full well that Scott is a feckless 42-year-old whose glory days on the college wrestling team ended two decades earlier, and who now cannot commit even to teaching his own classes properly. Having given up the fight long ago, Scott plans to do just that in his matches too, accepting defeat and walking away with the consolation prize. “I can do this,” he reassures Marty, “Lose.” Yet once he is in the cage, amidst all the grips and body blows, a revitalised Scott rediscovers the urge to win again.
Bella has a point. The idea of schlubby Scott getting paid to lose matches against younger professional fighters seems nearly as ill-conceived as the prospect of him actually winning, and it would be all too easy to dismiss Here Comes the Boom merely as a freestyle mix-up of Bad Teacher (2011), Detachment (2011) and Warrior (2011), all filtered through the low-brow sensibility of its executive producer Adam Sandler (whose The Wedding Singer, The Waterboy and Click were also helmed by Frank Coraci). Yet here, much as co-writer/producer/star James has trained up and lost weight for the punishing lead part, the comedy too comes slimmed down, and is, despite the odd vomit gag, more restrained – which may for some mean less funny – than previous films from the Sadler/James stable. Aware that he is dealing in zero-to-hero cliché, Coraci traces Scott’s ‘true underdog’ trajectory through the cursory medium of montage, while similarly skipping through Scott’s predictable romance with Bella.
With all else stripped down, what remains is national allegory. As Scott moonlights at a civics class for adults seeking US citizenship, his student Miguel (Shelly Desai), struggling with English, confuses the word ‘suffrage’ with ‘suffering’, and to Scott’s insistence that suffrage is nothing to do with pain, merely responds, “No pain no gain.” This conflation of bodies politic and pummeled will providee a key subtext in a film whose resigned protagonist, faced with the effects of recession, comes back fighting, rediscovering his lost passions and inspiring others to do better themselves. It is an optimistic, almost Capra-esque vision of the American dream, though bruised and battered, reemerging triumphant – indeed the film’s final line, shouted by a newly naturalised Miguel, is “Vive America!” While the film’s title Here Comes the Boom derives ostensibly from the P.O.D song Boom which Scott uses as his walk-on number at bouts, it encodes a vision of America’s current economic bust returning to boom, fuelled by individual effort, collective support, outside assimilation and – surprisingly for an arena film – respect for the arts. Of course it would be crazy to imagine America’s recovery stemming from middle-aged cage-fighting – but at a school whose debating society is first to be cut, at least Scott reopens the discussion in this quixotic sporting comedy.