The story of the most dominant racehorse of all time does not easily fit into the standard inspirational sports flick mold. Such films typically require its protagonists to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles be they competitive (Hoosiers) personal (The Natural) societal (Ali) or some combination of all three (Remember the Titans). But by all accounts the greatest challenges to Secretariat capturing of the 1973 Triple Crown were not rival horses — indeed Secretariat had no true rival — but a pair of slow starts and an abscess. And abscesses — apologies to dermatologists — simply aren’t all that effective as dramatic devices.
Lacking most of the vital ingredients of the traditional underdog movie formula Disney’s Secretariat is forced to synthesize them. Its screenplay written by Mike Rich and based rather loosely on the book Secretariat: The Making of a Champion by William Nack adopts a conventional save-the-farm framework: When her parents pass away within months of each other Denver housewife Penny Tweedy (Diane Lane) is advised to sell off her family’s Virginia-based Meadow Stables a beautiful but unprofitable horse-breeding enterprise in order to pay the onerous inheritance taxes levied by the state. But Penny her deceased father’s hackneyed horse-inspired counsel fresh in her mind (“You’ve got to run your own race ” etc. etc.) is loath to depart with such a cherished heirloom. So she concocts a scheme just idiotic enough to work betting the farm — literally — that her new horse Big Red in whom she has an almost Messianic faith will win the Kentucky Derby Preakness and Belmont races in succession.
Of course Big Red under the stage name Secretariat goes on to do just that but only after the film subjects us to nearly two hours of manufactured melodrama. Lane grasping all-too conspicuously for awards consideration treats every line as if it were the St. Crispin’s Day speech. Her character Penny exhibits a hair-trigger sensitivity to the sounds of skeptics and naysayers bursting forth with a polite rebuke and a stern sermon for anyone who dares doubt her crusade from the trash-talking owner of a rival horse to her annoyingly pragmatic husband (Dylan Walsh).
Lane isn’t alone in her grandiosity. The entire production reeks of it as director Randall Wallace lines the story with fetid chunks of overwrought Oscar bait like so many droppings in an untended stable even using Old Testament quotations and gospel music to endow Penny’s quest with biblical significance. John Malkovich is kind enough to inject some mirth into the heavy-handed proceedings hamming it up as Secretariat’s trainer Lucien Laurin a French-Canadian curmudgeon with an odd sartorial palette. It’s not enough however to alleviate the discomfort of witnessing the film's quasi-Sambo depiction of Secretariat’s famed groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) which reaches its cringeworthy zenith when Sweat runs out to the track on the eve of the Belmont Stakes and exclaims to no one in particular that “Big Red done eat his breakfast this mornin’!!!” Bagger Vance would be proud. Whether or not Ellis’ portrayal of Sweat’s cadence and mannerisms is accurate (and for all I know it may well be) the character is too thinly drawn to register as anything more than an amiable simple-minded servant.
Animal lovers will be happy to know that the horses in Secretariat come off looking far better than their human counterparts and not just because they’re alloted the best dialogue. In the training and racing sequences Wallace effectively conveys the strength and majesty of the fearsome animals drawing us into the action and creating a strong element of suspense even though the final result is a fait accompli. It's too bad the rest of the film never makes it out of the gate.
Within the whole sports genre we really haven’t seen a Ping-Pong movie before—especially one portayed in such a spectacularly goofy way. Former child Ping-Pong prodigy Randy Daytona (Dan Fogler) who was unceremoniously defeated decades ago is now reduced to performing ball tricks on stage at a local bar. But Randy’s luck changes when FBI Agent Rodriguez (George Lopez) recruits him for a secret mission: to ferret out FBI’s Most Wanted arch-villain and Ping-Pong connoisseur Feng (Christopher Walken) the man who killed Randy’s father. But times have changed since Randy choked and Ping-Pong is now played in an unsanctioned underground and extreme kind of way. Randy has to get into shape with the spiritual guidance of a blind Ping-Pong master named Wong (James Hong) and his kickass niece Maggie (Maggie Q) in order to make it to Feng’s mysterious jungle compound to play in the most unique Ping-Pong tournaments ever staged. Randy has his work cut out for him though if he’s going to wield his paddle and triumph over rampant wickedness. Who is this Dan Fogler guy and why haven’t we seen him before? Apparently he’s been on stage winning a Tony Award for his work in the Broadway play The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee among other things. Now Hollywood is beckoning—and it looks like Fogler has the chops to stick it out. Sort of a cross between Jack Black and Meatloaf the actor totally makes Balls of Fury’s campiness work. He also has lots of help from his fellow players: Lopez is hilarious as the FBI agent who has been working a desk job but fancies himself a James Bond; veteran Asian actor Hong gets to use chopsticks in some interesting ways as the sage but cantankerous Wong; the hard-bodied Maggie Q (wonder what the "Q" stands for) who up to this point has only kicked butt in action movies like Live Free or Die Hard and Mission: Impossible III plays it light in Balls; and of course Mr. Walken as the evil Feng doing his own impression of any Bond villian you can think of while still being Christopher Walken. That man has WAY too much fun in this film. Also look for loads of cameos by recognizable folks. Director/co-writer Robert Ben Garant and his screenwriting partner actor Thomas Lennon (who plays Randy’s hysterical uber-Nazi Ping-Pong rival Karl Wolfschtagg) certainly have a peculiar sense of humor something they created while working on MTV’s The State’s sketch comedy back in the ‘90s and then cultivated on their Comedy Central show Reno: 911!. They’ve gone PG with writing credits such as Night at the Museum and The Pacifier but have gotten R-rated especially with the Reno 911: Miami big-screen effort. Balls of Fury falls somewhere in between (that would be PG-13)--a mixture of James Bond bad martial-arts films Matrix-like slow-mo effects and just about any sports movie starring Will Ferrell. In other words for as many tiny balls that get batted around in any number of silly ways if you buy into their particular brand of comedy (like me) Balls of Fury will keep you in stitches. Oh and if you're a Def Lepperd fan you'll also be pleased with the soundtrack.
With stories like this who even needs the “Inspired by true events” shield? Primeval tells of the world’s most prolific killer Gustave. You see Gustave is a crocodile and he remains at large to this day. His thirst for human blood goes unpublicized until he chows down on a white woman at which point an American newsman Tim Manfrey (Dominic Purcell) his cameraman Steven (Orlando Jones) and TV personality Aviva (Brooke Langton) head down to Burundi Africa where they hope to document the capture of Gustave. They’re joined by a wildlife preservationist of sorts (Gideon Emery)—a rare breed in a post-Steve Irwin world—who doesn’t want to harm Gustave. The deep jungles of Africa become a veritable obstacle course when the locals embroiled in a long-standing civil war and unwilling to have some damn Yankees televising their homeland stand in the crew’s way not to mention Gustave proving an evasive 20-foot-long um little bugger! The names might not ring a bell but you’ve seen these three stooges before--all on TV in fact. Purcell is currently enjoying about half the 15 minutes of fame of Wentworth Miller on Fox’s slipping Prison Break. Purcell plays Tim with steel and virility as he hides his Aussie accent for the most part but he’s still got a ways to go to reach Clive Owen’s caliber of acting--and more importantly Owen’s caliber of roles. Langton of The Net (the TV show adapted from the Sandra Bullock movie of the same name) and Melrose Place fame shows off the beauty that will afford endless opportunities to prove herself as a “real” actress—which is ironically similar to her character’s plight—but will never get there with roles in movies like Primeval. And Jones still best known for and plagued by his 7-Up commercials is in true negligible-sidekick mode here--worthy of a snicker approximately once out of every dozen times he tries overzealously to get one. Jaws may come to mind based on the water creature-stalking-man plot but well it’s tough to even mention those two in the same sentence. Director Michael Katleman a TV fixture himself at least doesn’t even aim high enough to reach that level. No from the get-go he’s shooting more for an Anacondas feel—and yes that’s the horrific sequel to the so-terrible-it’s-fun J.Lo “original.” Katleman almost reaches Anacondas-ian highs but not quite. Among other notable problems the director cannot for one moment strike the right balance between the aforementioned level of guilty pleasure-dom and genuine horror. Instead he catches us off guard with what are supposed to be the thrills—and also with the comedy. Finally once Gustave is revealed which should essentially be the moviegoers’ reward the croc looks more a prop sitting in a theme-park lot. And the script from John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris (Terminator 3 co-writers)—well let’s just hope with the story being uber-derivative and cheesy enough as it is Orlando Jones ad-libbed all of his unlaughable comedy!