A Call to Arms

Hilarious, hard-edged, and surprisingly dark, The Foot Fist Way is a breed of sports comedy unlike any other. On the surface, it looks deceptively like a poor man’s Will Ferrell vehicle, chronicling the predictable fall and rise of a delusional half-wit. But The Foot Fist Way is distinguished by an unusually genuine concern for notions of honor, and a scabrous humor that is miles away from conventional studio fare.

Danny McBride stars as Fred Simmons, an overweening Tae Kwon Do instructor who lords over a tiny, Concord, NC, dojo. He’s narrow-minded and megalomaniacal, but tries to live faithfully by a personal code that advocates “self-control, integrity, and an indomitable spirit.” That code is tested when his wife cheats on him, first with her boss, then with Simmons’s hero, martial arts champion Chuck “The Truck” Wallace. Simmons struggles to maintain his dignity amid these humiliations, but his life and work unravel precipitately until a battle with Wallace delivers a possible shot at redemption.

Although Simmons is the kind of character many would blithely consider a loser, director Jody Hill does him the courtesy of taking him seriously. Simmons’s misfortune may be played for laughs, but the jokes are in each case alloyed by emotional pith and a very real existential crisis. Is he the righteous, code-bound warrior he’s always believed himself to be, or simply a blustering strip-mall charlatan?

McBride invests the character with a degree of hyper-oxygenated intensity that is as frightening as it is funny. Simmons is not, as per the usual comic hero, a loveable doofus, but a marginal weirdo with anger issues. “At the core, people are shit,” he confesses to one of his students. It’s not hard to imagine someone like Jack Black soft-peddling that line, but Simmons gives it enough heft to make it credible, and The Foot Fist Way is stranger, sharper, and altogether funnier for it.

Equally funny, but without the dark subcurrent, is Son of Rambow, directed by Garth Jennings. The film is an ’80s nostalgia trip that looks back at the creative possibilities occasioned by the camcorder, while simultaneously exploring the way children absorb and reconfigure pop culture.

Will Proudfoot is an imaginative but inhibited boy who’s never seen a movie before, owing to his religion’s strict injunction against all types of media. Lee Carter is the school bully who introduces Will to the explosive cinematic pleasures of First Blood. A friendship is immediately born, and with it a scheme to direct their own homegrown sequel. The rest of the plot is devoted to the pair’s riotous and half-baked attempts at filmmaking: they wreck cars, set things on fire, and nearly drown themselves executing stunts.

The story inevitably calls to mind a host of recent and similar pop phenomena: the “sweding” in Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind, the teenage, shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark, half the content of YouTube, etc. Son of Rambow glorifies the moment when video first made it all possible, and furthermore insists that these forms of cultural worship/borrowing are constructive. Will and Lee might be appropriating a pop landmark as their starting point, but the movie they make is very much their own. It gives them an identity, cements their friendship, and miraculously solves a number of their personal problems along the way.

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