It’s a rare phenomenon that a film so completely decimates an audience’s understanding of civility that it forces them to recalibrate their entire moral compass. Before Danny McBride swindled us into liking Kenny Powers, the bullying, ultra-arrogant former major league pitcher in Eastbound & Down, he forced on us a protagonist far more brutal and amoral. Fred Simmons, strip mall Taekwondo instructor and small town psychopath, intruded upon the public consciousness in 2006 with Jody Hill’s The Foot Fist Way, leaving audiences stunned and struggling to regain their internal equilibrium, as if they had been suddenly dropped into higher altitudes.
Fred Simmons’s savage presence loomed so large over the movie that some critics, despite their admiration for the film itself, couldn’t overcome their distaste for its protagonist. “The hero of The Foot Fist Way is loathsome and reprehensible and isn’t a villain in any traditional sense. Five minutes spent in his company and my jaw was dropping,” wrote a horrified Robert Ebert. “I cannot recommend this movie,” he concluded, “but I can describe it, and then it’s up to you. If it sounds like a movie you would loathe, you are correct.” It’s worth noting that Ebert still gave the film a 2-star review, presumably out of deference to the filmmakers’ effectiveness at bringing their unsettling vision to life.
Fortunately the film did have its champions, most notably in Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, who picked it up for distribution after it landed at Sundance. Devoid of any of the whimsy or preciousness associated with many indie comedies of late, The Foot Fist Way is a brutal tale of delusion that violently batters away all notions of decency and propriety. In Simmons the filmmakers created a hostile, depraved hero and unleashed him into a hostile, depraved world.
It’s easy to see why Ferrell and McKay were so attracted to the project. McBride wields an aggressive arrogance that’s somewhat akin to the obtuse swagger Ferrell has become popular for. But while the offensiveness of Ferrell’s characters is softened by the actor’s inherent underlying sweetness, McBride is unrelenting in exercising Simmons’s vicious egomania. “Many perceive from the movies that these instructors are peaceful creatures,” explained Jody Hill, “but in actuality they’re rednecks who beat people up in bars and go through divorces.”
Take this scene in which Simmons attempts to sign a new client. She’s simply interested in improving her physical health, while Simmons is determined to market his martial art as a “deadly serious killing system.” He’s speaking earnestly, but there’s more than a little menace in his words when he describes a scenario that Taekwondo can save her from that meditation definitely cannot.
Before Jody Hill maxed out his credit cards to get The Foot Fist Way made, a protagonist like Fred Simmons had rarely been seen before, let alone in comedy. Hill, co-writer Ben Best, and McBride (also a co-writer) would later go on to perfect this archetype in Eastbound & Down, fleshing him out over the course of several seasons and letting us root for him on the journey back after his fall from grace. But in their first outing the trio were still unknown quantities, and their inclination toward the raw and unhinged left some viewers confused and uncomfortable, unsure whether they should laugh or file a complaint.
Anonymity also allowed them to orchestrate this amazing bit of promotion on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, in which McBride appears in character as Simmons under the pretense of promoting his Taekwondo school. The audience, mostly unaware of the gag, gradually transitions from chuckling at the self-proclaimed King of the Demo’s confusion at the mechanics of late night television to laughing uncomfortably when he lashes out at fellow guest Will Ferrell. Performing in the demonstration along with McBride are actual actors from the movie, including Jody Hill in character as Taekwondo black belt Mike McAlister.
What alienated the film’s detractors and enticed its admirers was how unapologetic The Foot Fist Way remained all the way through to its conclusion. To their credit the filmmakers reserved all judgments of Fred Simmons and resisted any sloppy attempts at redemption. Instead they let Simmons exist exactly as he would, wreaking a ton of destruction while eking out small moments of strange nobility here and there. Some people were reluctant to embrace the film because they believed that Simmons was operating on a level that was just too far out there. Ebert felt that he “existed outside any conventional notion of proper behavior.” But to me he seems totally grounded in reality. I feel like I’ve encountered a Fred Simmons — or a Fred Simmons in the making — dozens of times. He pops up everywhere in the form of fragile people who cling to fantastic delusions in order for their egos to survive. They exist in every profession and every city. We’re in constant interaction with them. That’s the underlying humor at the core of the film. And the underlying horror.