Hands of stone meet heads of air in “Here Comes the Boom,” a sports story so daffy it may as well star Kevin James. Reuniting the Everyman thesp with “Zookeeper” director Frank Coraci, this “Rocky”-esque tale is a triumph of recycling, with James playing a biology teacher-turned-UFC fighter out to save his high school’s music program. The visibly buffed actor obviously trained for the role, and the onscreen violence adds a frisson of tension to the pic’s mix of grappling, romance and anemic social critique. Genial tone will help slip a half nelson on opening weekend B.O.; just-respectable numbers seem likely.
The screenplay, by James and Allan Loeb, wastes no time setting a comedic tone, and setting it low: Scott Voss (James), arriving late for school again and being caught by vinegary Principal Betcher (Greg Germann), teaches a class where the smartest student is Asian and the most disaffected is Hispanic. Immigrant humor resurfaces when Scott moonlights at a citizenship class, where wacky foreign students deliver less-than-hilarious bon mots and become entangled, theoretically, in the three branches of government.
Scott doesn’t inspire his students any more than his students inspire laughs, but he does get a lift out of the school orchestra, led by the benevolent gray-maned Marty Streb, whose portrayal by Henry Winkler is one of the film’s more refreshingly natural and engaging aspects. Salma Hayek is likewise engaging as Scott’s elusive romantic muse, Bella Flores, who patches Scott’s wrestling injuries as gracefully as she eludes his clutches.
The central conceit, that a husky biology teacher would not only survive but thrive as a fighter on the mixed-martial-arts circuit, makes “Star Wars” seem like a documentary. The very idea of Scott getting in the ring with someone like the steel-toothed Ken Dietrich (Krzysztof Soszynski) is too absurd to sell convincingly, and helmer Coraci doesn’t really try, although the various fights are staged with considerable veracity and no small amount of child-unfriendly violence. At the same time, the solemnity with which certain subjects are approached — the shortcomings of the school system, for instance, or the shortchanging of its students — doesn’t exactly incline “Here Comes the Boom” toward baggy-pants comedy. The overall tenor is clangorously discordant.
But the characters are likable, not just Marty and Bella but also Niko (Bas Rutten), the citizenship student who also happens to be an ex-fighter and trainer, and who helps Scott get his act in gear. Rutten, an ex-MMA type himself, is something of a gift to the movie, a bit of an overblown commodity but a memorable one, mixing physical menace and comedy in a way that positions him somewhere between Dwayne Johnson and Tor Johnson.
Real-life fight personalities pop up throughout the pic, including cut man Jacob “Stitch” Duran and announcers Bruce Buffer and Mike Goldberg. Not nearly enough attention is given to a vitriolic domestic sidebar featuring Scott’s brother, Eric (Gary Valentine), and his hellacious wife, Lauren (Melissa Peterman), who are flat-out funny. They might reasonably have taken some of the screentime devoted to Scott’s vomiting on one of his opponents (a moment that gets widely circulated on YouTube), or to the food fight that erupts in a hotel room and sends the movie into second-rate “Three Stooges” territory. Of course, given the serious subject matter, a little lightening up was probably in order.
Tech credits are first-rate, although Rupert Gregson-Williams’ music is used in rather ham-fisted fashion. But no one should approach “Here Comes the Boom” expecting subtlety.