A determined teacher enters the Octagon in 'Here Comes the Boom' ★★ 1/2

Wait a sec. How did the Kevin James mixed martial arts movie end up a more convincing portrait of the plight of the American public school teacher than "Won't Back Down," a film that's actually about that subject?

"Here Comes the Boom" begins not well, with overstated and very broadly played comedy from Frank Coraci, the director of "The Wedding Singer" (fun) and "Click" (not). But once it gets going and commits to its time-worn inspirational formula, it's not half-bad.

James is most of the show, playing burned-out high school biology teacher Scott Voss, a single man barely able to muster the gumption to ask out the strangely available school nurse played by Salma Hayek. The crumbling school cannot cope with its budgetary crisis.

So it's out to the curb with longtime music teacher (likable Henry Winkler, who at some point in the early 21st century morphed into Edward Everett Horton) unless $48,000 can be raised.

Solution: Voss, who wrestled in college, ventures into the punishing world of mixed martial arts. He makes it all the way to the Ultimate Fighting Championship in Las Vegas, where it's $10,000 to the man who loses, $50,000 to the winner. One way lies anonymity; the other, glory.

"Here Comes the Boom" shares much in common with last year's melodrama "Warrior," in which Joel Edgerton played a high school biology teacher forced by economic circumstances to enter the Octagon of pain. The two films have everything in common, in fact, except a very big thing: tone. "Warrior" sweat blood, tears and cliches to earn the audience's weepy respect. "Here Comes the Boom," from a script by James and Allan Loeb, is more about solid laughs amid concussive PG-rated slapstick. It works, more or less, primarily because as hard as it may be on Voss physically, the film takes it easy on the audience, even while indulging in shameless narrative strategies to engineer a very full climax, showcasing among others the talented Filipina student played by Charmaine Clarice Relucio Pempengco, who goes by Charice. This angel, his lion-hearted advocate, is threatened with a severe lack of future stardom if that music program is allowed to die. Therefore, it must not die.

Not that kids will notice, but in "Here Comes the Boom" the teachers talk about their frustrations with the job, with the resources and with their own eroded idealism. They do so, and somehow they aren't turned into cliched saints or sinners. They're somewhere in between. So is the movie, in various qualitative ways. But it's a surprisingly engaging in-between.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'Here Comes the Boom' -- 2 1/2 stars

MPAA rating: PG (for bouts of MMA sports violence, some rude humor and language)

Running time: 1:45

Opens: Friday

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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