Kevin James lowers the boom on a serious problem that's been plaguing America for years with the shortage of education funding in "Here Comes the Boom" -- but in the comedian's unique style, he proves once again that you can address important issues in an entertaining way.
Opening in theaters Friday, the film stars James as Scott Voss -- a complacent high school teacher who suddenly finds purpose in life as he takes up a side gig in mixed martial arts (MMA) in order to raise enough money to save his music teacher friend's (Henry Winkler) job.
Think "Warrior" meets "Mr. Holland's Opus" and you've got "Here Comes the Boom." The big bonus you get here, though, is laughter.
"Comedy is a great way to bring people together so you can bring up points like this," James told me in a recent interview. "(The movie has this) aspirin in the applesauce type of thing where you've got serious problems with these schools and the funding and all that, but also it points out bad teachers and great teachers not being recognized enough. That's also what the film is about -- about becoming the best version of yourself and not settling with being complacent in your life or your job, or whatever it may be."
James, who had for years wanted to do a film about the inner-workings of MMA, said "Here Comes the Boom" gave him a unique opportunity to do just that -- and better yet, it works on more than one level.
"In this movie, we go to such an extreme with the fighting, but it's really just a metaphor for whatever obstacles people have in their lives," James said.
Taking one (or 100) for the team
James said a few punches as were landed for real when he was making "Here Comes the Boom" -- and he was the unfortunate beneficiary of them. But, the comedian insisted, they were worth it.
"The most frustrating ones were the ones where you get clocked in the face really bad, and they say, 'I'm sorry, we didn't get that. The camera missed that one. Can we do it again?' so we had to do it again," James deadpanned.
"But in training with these guys, and you get in there and the adrenaline gets pumping and they yell, 'Action!' it becomes like a mini fight -- well, maybe not for the fighters, because they're rolling around and trying to do the right thing," James added. "I feel bad for them because they're trying not to hurt me, but it did happen (that I got hit for real). It happened all the time. But it lends reality to it."
James, who co-wrote "Here Comes the Boom," said while the idea of the film was clearly inspired by his co-star, MMA great Bas Rutten, he wanted to showcase his friend for his skills as an actor, and not necessarily as a fighter.
Rutten plays Niko, a former MMA fighter whom Voss tutors for his American citizenship test. In exchange, Niko helps Voss get in shape for his MMA matches.
"I always wanted to work Bas in a way that was different," James said. "With most fighters, people put them in a movie and say, 'Oh, there's that fighter' or he's just playing a tough guy or a goon. But I know Bas has the ability to play a character. He's always had such a unique, charismatic way about him that I wanted to use. As much as I'm doing this for him, he's doing it for me because it's making my movie better."
On the flip side, Rutten told me that he was thrilled that James wanted to do a movie about the sport he's so passionate about.
"It's the fastest -growing sport in the world, and certainly in America for the past four years, People are just intrigued," explained Rutten, who joined James for the interview. "And what is there not to like? There are so many ways you can win in it and so many ways you can lose. You need to be good in everything and excel in everything. In the Olympics, you train for one sport, whether it's Judo, wrestling or boxing or Taekwondo. Here you take all four sports and put them together, and you have mixed martial arts."
Rutten said what he especially loves about MMA is that it just as much takes smarts to win as it does physicality.
"I believe there was a study at one time that said that 69 or 70 percent of the fighters have a college education, which is pretty high," Rutten said. "I totally believe that you need to be smart. I see it with my gym every day. I have 30 new sign-ups a month and 25 don't make it to the next month. People come in and say, 'I can scrap,' but then they realize it's not what it is. It's way harder."
James agreed that there's much more to MMA fighters than being the "best conditioned athletes on the planet."
"MMA is really a chess match to them. They have to mentally up their game and know what the other guy is thinking," James observed. "One guy could come along and is a Jujitsu guy or Taekwondo guy, and the next one to come along could be a Muay Thai guy -- or then a great wrestler could come along, or a guy who's great with his fists and boxing. That's what's exciting about this sport. There are so many aspects to it that you have to get good at."