“Look up there!” enthuses music teacher Marty (Henry Winkler) near the end of Here Comes the Boom. His best friend and colleague Scott (Kevin James) does his best to do so, even as his eyes are swollen shut and his face bloodied, following a beatdown by his UFC opponent, Ken The Executioner Dietrich (Krzysztof Soszynski). They’re in an arena in Vegas, in order that Scott might win enough prize money to support Marty’s middle school music class back in Boston. “Up there,” means up in the seats, where their students are watching to see if Scott will get up and finish the fight. Those kids, Marty goes on, are “inspired,” and really, what else is a teacher supposed to do, except to inspire his students?
As Scott lurches to his feet, you might reflect on Marty’s assessment and Scott’s achievement. Scott spends the film being pummeled in order to raise money in support of Marty’s music class, which has been cut by their principal (Greg Germann). Scott was on a wrestling team in high school (the camera pans over a few trophies in his bedroom by way of introducing him, snoring and late for work, as a biology teacher) and so, apparently, maintains some sense of how to pin an opponent and maybe a basic fitness, only waiting to be reinvigorated by a few training sessions. His lateness and his goofy efforts to sneak past the principal by way of his classroom window set up the movie’s investment in a rudimentary physical comedy based equally on his round body and his resilience.
That comedy is most frequently staged as Scott’s abuses in a series of low-rent MMA bouts. His route to such jokey heroism is convoluted and not precisely logical, but it does involve an actual (retired) MMA fighter, Niko (Bas Rutten, an actual actual retired MMA fighter). They meet when Scott tries at first to fund the music class by teaching a US citizenship class for six dollars an hour, an idea he gives up once he learns that he can make more money faster by fighting.
Here Comes the Boom hardly belabors this point, that teaching (biology or music or citizenship) pays so little that its pursuit can only be justified by the fanciful desire to “inspire” students, but it’s another one of those observations-in-passing that bears a bit of reflection. Much like the miserable teachers in, say, Won’t Back Down or Bad Teacher or even School of Rock, Scott is roused to better behavior in his classroom by his students’ potential and sometimes immediate investments, just as they are similarly moved by his. When Scott jumps up on his desk in biology class (or Marty quotes Nietzsche, “Without music, life would be a mistake”), the kids light up, like they tend to do in movies, and the cycle is set in motion. That Scott makes a transition from that desk in Boston to MMA cages around New England is both ridiculous and broadly metaphorical: even as teachers endure beatdowns at all kinds of levels, they still come back to be inspiring and inspired.
Just so, Niko, Scott’s teacher, is inspiring and inspired. Having suffered a career-ending and undetailed neck injury, he finds his way out of yoga and spin classes—which he conducts with no small enthusiasm, by the way—by training Scott and traveling with him to matches. And when he determines that Scott is ready for a different sort of fighting, not only defense and losing, but also offense and maybe winning, he enlists the help of an offense expert (Mark DellaGrotte as “himself”). By the time he goes to Vegas to fight The Executioner, Scott has something like an entourage, a point underlined by a look-how-laidback-we-can-be scene in their hotel room, complete with food fight.
Here the movie reminds you that it’s a Happy Madison production, that is, a movie designed as fun for its makers, and if the rest of you want to (or can) feel that fun vibe, that’s cool too. It’s not a terrible way to approach the business of moviemaking, which can be stressful and hard and still not yield a movie that’s at all inspired or inspiring. But it’s also become a hallmark of the Happy Madison brand, partly rejecting movie conventions but also partly absorbing and exploiting them.
This involves much sleight of hand, sloppy and duller by the minutel. While his brother (Gary Valentine) provides plenty of evidence that marriage is a hellish pit of disappointment and mutual resentment, Scott persists in his pursuit of Bella (Salma Hayek), the school nurse conveniently in place to apply antiseptic and bandage his cuts. And while the school continues to cut classes and activities, the students and Scott and Marty’s colleagues—and even the principal—are turned into eager, loud fans of the MMA as an alternative funding source. They don’t look inspired here, or inspiring. They look like they’re just cheering for the beatdown.