[19 June 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Comedy can come out of a number of circumstances. Sometimes, all you need is a goofy premise, and audiences will laugh without realizing it. At other instances, carefully drawn characters are required to gain the guffaws. There is parody and satire, high minded intellectualism and low brow slapstick. It takes skill to circumnavigate any one of these tenuous elements, while some filmmakers can manage all of them within a single cinematic setting. Such is the case with The Foot Fist Way, a $70,000 independent offering hijacked by Will Ferrell and Andy McKay for their Gary Sanchez Productions. This fudged up little gem may get lost among all the mainstream merriment, but it far surpasses what your sloppy Cineplex car wrecks have to offer.
Fred Simmons, former World Tae Kwan Do champion, runs a small little school in a North Carolina strip mall. His daily activities include grooming his students for a future as martial artists, keeping his eye on his wayward wife, ogling the new female talent taking his class, working on angles for his public demonstrations, and idolizing Hollywood action hero Chuck “The Truck” Wallace. When a chance comes to meet his idol, he takes his two most promising apprentices (Julio and Rick) and his best buddy Mike McCallister on a rollicking road trip, complete with a detour into drugs, self-defense, and debauchery. But when Wallace agrees to come back for the testing of Simmons’ scholars, his presence may be too much for the man.
Built out of the ‘asshole as hero’ mode of amusement, and anchored by a frightening portrayal by lead actor Danny McBride, The Foot Fist Way is a collection of contradictory ideals gelling effortlessly into a smart, savvy whole. Clearly, we are not supposed to indentify with this child-beating, egomaniacal jerk-off, personal philosophy borne out of a shocking combination of Eastern wisdom and way too much near beer. Simmons is given his vulnerable moments - once he learns of his wife’s adultery, a stare down in the mirror brings out levels of hidden horror few could properly manage - but he’s also functioning under a daily delusion. He believes that if he can just follow the mandates of his school’s kung fu oath, he can survive anything. Unfortunately, he can barely get through a beginner’s class without cursing out some five-year-old.
As a cold, calculated character study, The Foot Fist Way feels more like a mockumentary than a standard motion picture. Director (and co-star) Jody Hill applies a found footage style, camera circling the action like a combatant about to enter the Octagon. There are times when the approach breaks free, a music-based montage of the boys’ adventures at Wallace’s suite party proving that sometimes, selected shots edited to songs can actually work. He does it again during our final showdown, Simmons taking on his hero to see who truly is the king of the board/concrete block break. Yet the film really sizzles when Hill lets the lens rest, allowing McBride and the rest of the cast to improvise and react to the surreality surrounding them.
As stated before, our lead is amazing, managing to be both slightly loveable and utterly loathsome at the same time. We understand Simmons’ pain…sort of. He’s a minor fish in an even smaller pond, someone who strove to be the best at what he does only to wind up teaching techniques to toddlers and the borderline infirmed. His trophy wife is more of an aggravation than aphrodisiac, and as embodied (and one does mean “bodied”) by newcomer Mary Jane Bostic, the emasculation of her infidelity is obvious. As Chuck “The Truck” Wallace, co-writer Ben Best is pitch perfect. Imagine a certain ‘Texas Ranger’ wrapped in half-conscious hippy garb, eyes bleary from a life lost in a liquor and lady fueled limelight. His scenes with Simmons are priceless, since they offer an opportunity to see one butthead belittling another.
As for its overall narrative structure, The Foot Fist Way is a tad scattered. There is a vignette oriented quality to the storyline, Simmons and his class introduced before random acts of oddness happen. There are times when things fall flat, as when our lunkhead chastises his wife for not thinking he’s ‘great’ enough. But McBride and Hill are totally committed to this material, never once breaking that all important Fourth Wall to wink at the audience in “aren’t we rotten” recognition. Naturally, this adds to the film’s sense of authenticity. We are supposed to see Simmons for what he is - an uncomplicated dullard dealt a real world raw hand by a society that wants to complicate things.
Of course, it helps that there are plenty of laughs here. One scene in particular is so scatologically brilliant (Simmons berates his wife one last time) it will be quoted by broken hearted jarheads for decades to come. In other places, the blackly comic sight of kids getting kicked and punched by an adult offers a gut load of guilty pleasures. Hill and company never go for the obvious joke, instead hoping our collective involvement in these characters’ dilemmas lead to the laughs. Most of the time they do, and this is The Foot Fist Way‘s greatest strength. Even when opportunities are missed or just improperly paid off, the spunky, go for broke spirit remains.
It’s a shame that, in a current marketplace that favors marginal comedians (Steve Carrel, Mike Myers) going gonzo for supposed laughs (Get Smart and The Love Guru, respectively), a movie like The Foot Fist Way is being unceremoniously dumped. Like Napoleon Dynamite, or Juno, this is the kind of film that could, with proper cult creativity and strategizing, become a subtle sleeper, destined to keep college kids and like minded moviegoers doubled over in reverse ironic joy. They say that everyone loves a hero and pities a loser. Fred Simmons is neither, both, and a pretty bad example of each. He’s also far funnier than any old school secret agent or American born guru. Unfortunately, unless you look hard, it may be difficult to discover why.