The Foot Fist Way is the inaugural feature from Gary Sanchez Productions, a partnership between Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, whose other collaborations include Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Funny or Die, and countless vintage Saturday Night Live sketches. Their first production company child is actually adopted: Fist was produced independently and passed around film festivals and Hollywood comedy circles, sort of a viral feature that Ferrell and McKay are now giving old-fashioned theatrical exposure.
Danny McBride carries the film as Fred Simmons, a tae kwon do instructor who unironically refers to himself as the “king of the demo,” for his supposed prowess in parking-lot demonstrations of his craft. Fred is a sadder, more recognizable version of Ferrell characters like Ricky Bobby or Ron Burgundy, a pompous manchild with delusions of masculine dominance. Simmons has latched onto martial arts as both a life raft and defense mechanism, failing to see any situation which he can’t punch his way out of (he’s not unlike an emotionally stunted, insecure version of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s character in Redbelt). McBride commits to this character with scary, impressive intensity, making Fred Simmons a believable, un-cuddly boob.
But cowriter-director Jody Hill sets Fred adrift in the film’s meandering, sketchy construction. Fred deals with marital problems and pursues a partnership with Chuck “the Truck” Wallace (cowriter Ben Best), a Chuck Norris-esque martial artist. This episodic approach and the drab settings are reminiscent of Napoleon Dynamite, but that film had the simplicity and clarity of an alternative comic book, while Foot Fist‘s abrupt cuts stunt scenes’ development. McBride may be up for a quip-free character study, but it doesn’t delver actual laughs. Fred’s flirtation with a student (Collette Wolfe) is not just awkward, it’s a dead end after a few minutes.
The Foot Fist Way‘s comedy verges perpetually on the edge of effectiveness. Once in a while it prompts laughter, with a burst of wild slapstick or sustained weirdness, as when Fred and his staff attend a debauched party in Chuck’s hotel suite. But much of the film plays like improv routines recorded in one take.
McBride may well turn into a comedy star. He was hilarious in last summer’s Hot Rod and has parts in high-profile comedies alongside Ben Stiller, Jack Black, and Seth Rogen. But this ostensible showcase is weak in the ensemble department, full of amusing characters — Fred’s pudgy little sidekick Julio (Spencer Moreno), his even goofier best friend Mike (Hill), and his petulant wife Suzie (Mary Jane Bostic) — who endure precious little screen time. Fred might have made for a decent short subject, or maybe a web or TV series, but he wears out his welcome quickly here. The Foot Fist Way feels like it’s both too much and too little.