My rating: **
The only reason this film gets a two star rather than a one star rating is Christopher Walken. In recent years his choices of films and roles have been puzzling to say the least after a previously fairly illustrious career in mainstream and independent cinema. He is not listed on the Imdb as currently involved in any productions and one might speculate as to whether these kinds of roles have simply been a way for him to wind down to retirement and to have fun socialising on film sets.
This particular film appears to be a star vehicle for Dan Fogler – an actor in the John Belushi, Jack Black school. It is also a spoof of the 1973 Bruce Lee film Enter the Dragon and the title clearly references the Lee film Fists of Fury. (According to Wikipedia the film makers describe their film as the ‘retarded ping-pong version of Enter the Dragon‘). Here ping-pong occupies the role that Kung Fu occupies in Lee’s films. James Hong, veteran of many a token oriental role, plays the clichéd blind master à la the TV series Kung Fu – cue for numbers of tasteless blind man jokes, including him falling down a lift well at the end of the film after declaring that ‘the master of ping-pong must be aware of his environment’.
Walken plays the evil overlord Feng and cuts a fine figure in a magnificent Fu Manchu outfit complete with nail polish and hair that is a cross between Elvis and a traditional Chinese long plait. It is worth noting that in spite of this costume, Walken makes no attempt to play standard ‘yellowface’. His casting choice is clearly a deliberate reference to the practice of having Caucasian actors play evil oriental villains in old American and European films. As one would expect from his past performances, Walken eschews the racial stereotyping of minorities and remains a New Yorker from Queens to the hilt. On this subject, the film is full of over the top spoofed orientalist clichés and American actors of Korean, Chinese and Japanese origin indiscriminately play ‘orientals’ in Feng’s South American head quarters. None of them appear to be taking proceedings too seriously.
The final showdown between the hero and Feng involves a game of ping-pong played in booby trapped suits – a game which continues off the table through the soon-to-explode villain’s headquarters and onto a jungle rope suspension bridge. Perhaps it is the sheer inventive absurdity of this battle and the chance to dress up that appealed to Walken’s sense of humour and of the theatrical and persuaded him to take part in this dire, if amiable, film.
Feng’s demise is undignified and it is disappointing to see Walken’s character treated in this fashion. On this subject, Walken’s character in The Stepford Wives meets an even more demeaning end and one feels uneasy viewing these scenes. An actor of this calibre is surely worthy of more respect from the writers.
At the end of the film, à la Saturday Night Live, all the actors get together to sing over the end credits to the strains of some nondescript rock song that the audience is clearly meant to find rousing and singalong worthy. Walken acquits himself of this task with grace and elegance and these are possibly his best (if brief) scenes in the film. His comedic villain role is now a well-worn one otherwise – we have seen him do it before – but usually not in such a magnificently costumed manner.
One thing I did like about Balls of Fury was its bringing together of an ethnically diverse cast. It’s a pity that they weren’t given better material to work with and that it is not always entirely clear whether various racist stereotypes are being lampooned or simply perpetuated.