Call me crazy, but Kevin James doesn’t seem to be an inherently funny guy. Sure, he has an odd, cylindrical shape that promises lots of humorous pratfalls, but he also possesses a kind, Everyman-ish face that actually makes us not want to see him too hurt, or humiliated, or debased. He’s been mentored by Adam Sandler (whose Happy Madison company produced several other James vehicles, including this latest), but we don’t expect from him Sandler’s sociopathic mischief, or Ben Stiller’s owlish klutziness. James seems physically awkward, but likably ordinary. There, but for the grace of an occasional salad, go we.
Here Comes the Boom gets a lot of mileage out of its star’s inherent likability. True, the setup promises lots of physical humor, and we do initially get quite a bit of it. James plays Scott Voss, a once-promising, now-disaffected high school biology teacher who suddenly gets worked up when budget cuts to his school threaten the music program run by Marty Streb (Henry Winkler), the one genuinely inspiring teacher in the whole place. To raise the money to save the program, Voss decides to join the mixed martial arts (MMA) fighting circuit, inspired in part by former fighter Niko (played by real-life former fighter Bas Rutten), whom he convinces to become his coach.
When Voss first starts out in his deluded quest, he does get a couple of chuckle-worthy beatdowns that feature naked dudes flying through the air and gripping him in headlocks or throwing him down on the ground or what have you, but the film eventually settles into something more soft-focus, perhaps even serious. With the comically mismatched Marty and Niko by his side, Voss starts to train for real, and even begins to win a couple of bouts. (It’s all kind of symbolized by his choice of entrance music: It starts off as P.O.D.’s over-the-top “Here Comes the Boom,” but eventually switches over to Neil Diamond’s gospel-inflected “Holly Holy.”) Anyway, we know where it’s all headed, and it doesn’t take too many detours on its way there: Eventually, Voss gets his shot at a big-time bout in Vegas at the MGM Grand, having managed along the way to inspire his kids and woo the school nurse (Salma Hayek). It’s like Rocky, only it ain’t Rocky.
Here Comes the Boom doesn’t depart from the basic Happy Madison formula of a hapless schmoe succeeding in an unlikely environment. But for all its disposability, the movie does commit in some unexpected ways: The inspiring student orchestra led by Winkler’s soft-spoken character is a standard-issue plot device, but it’s one that the film actually seems to put a lot heart into; a subplot about a promising student (young Filipina singing sensation Charice) whose father won’t allow her to take a music class gets a surprising amount of screen time, with little snark; references to the economic crisis feel genuine, if simplistic. This isn’t the sort of thing that tends to click when Sandler does it, because he’s better when he’s being nihilistic. But his protégé is built for this: James seems incapable of playing anything but a mensch, and we want him to succeed. So even if Here Comes the Boom doesn’t quite work as a comedy (it’s not particularly funny), or a drama (it’s not particularly poignant), it has an earnest charm that keeps us engaged.