The saga of small-town strip mall taekwondo instructor Fred Simmons, "The Foot Fist Way" is the sort of nimble oddball discovery that one wishes would come along more often. The film's shoestring budget makes some of its rough edges and overall inconsistency forgivable, but it's all saved by actor Danny McBride, who has created such a distinctive character in Simmons, at once engaging and repulsive, that it's hard not to keep watching even while cringing.
Directed by Jody Hill, and co-written by Hill, McBride and Ben Best, the film started playing festivals in 2006 until it found the patronage of big-time comedy kingpins Will Ferrell and Adam McKay.
Though it is full of rough language and bawdy gags, one of the things that sets "The Foot Fist Way" apart from its frat-rocking, gross-out brethren is that there is a strange undercurrent of actual heart and emotion. The film repeatedly contrasts the zeal and joy of his exuberantly youthful students against the curdled edges of Simmons' limited ambitions. The unforgiving thick thighs and exaggerated features of his wife (Mary Jane Bostic), like an R. Crumb drawing come to life, makes the film seem like a projection of Simmons' fevered consciousness. When McBride's character finds himself cuckolded for a second time, and takes a humiliating beat-down in the process, he responds with a sure-to-be-talked-about gesture that, as an image of marital discord, is both shocking and strangely perfect.
As a calling card to Hollywood, the film has already served its purpose. McBride is also appearing this summer in "Tropic Thunder" and "Pineapple Express," while Hill is directing a film with Seth Rogen and Ray Liotta. Even co-writer Ben Best, who plays Williams' hero-turned-nemesis Chuck "The Truck" Wallace, had a small role in last summer's "Superbad." They are all now a part of the hip Hollywood comedy cognoscenti.
The film's overall construction is its weakest aspect, as too much is tied together by montages of the students kicking, punching and training, and the film seems a little over-eager to be turned into online clips, little snippets and lines snatched from the whole for a brief abstracted punch line. The film doesn't just include a single parody of an inspirational "getting ready" montage from an '80s action film -- the entire movie itself could be seen as an homage to the underlying idea, the psychic building-up to the big moment. Simmons lives inside his own mind, locked away in a perspective-free ideal where he is cool, fearless and indomitable.
The film ends on an enigmatic long take of McBride's face, and it is tough to read whether he is happy or sad or content or confused. Such is the way of "The Foot Fist Way," a rudely uproarious look at the implacably unknowing doofus caged inside all of us.
"The Foot Fist Way." MPPA rating: R for strong language and some sexual content. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes. In limited release.