Tuesday, November 14, 2023

TKD Watch: The Foot Fist Way (2006)

Watched:  11/12/2023
Format:  Max
Viewing:  Second
Director:  Jody Hill

I saw this back in the day when it was a theatrical release (apparently contributing $40 or so of the $250K take), and while I am sure it was originally hitting the festival circuit in 2006, I saw it in 2008.  

At the time, I took my pal Matt, who had just earned his Black Belt in something other than Tae Kwon Do. But strip-mall TKD was something with which I had a lot of familiarity.  I, myself, tested for a Black Belt circa 2001 after a few years of lessons.*  And, yes, everything in the movie about how these schools operate felt absolutely true.  

Your strip mall TKD dojo is a place where grown adults take instruction and direction from 13 year old kids left in charge of the class, and it's a place where people with jobs spend their time yelling mispronounced Korean words and treating everything with deadly seriousness as they kick targets and punch dummies.

Really, this movie is the prototype Danny McBride/ Jody Hill project.  If you're a fan of Eastbound and Down, Vice-Principals or Righteous Gemstones, you're familiar with the one character McBride plays over and over:  the 21st Century bone-headed American male who grew up with weird ideas about masculinity, an overwhelming sense of entitlement, and an easily rocked world view and who responds to challenges with confusion and anger.  

McBride and Hill have made a career out of finding the humanity in this stereotype, starting with the absurdity that backs up the character's life choices and POV.  When the change arrives that makes them question their idealized little worlds, the characters actually do grow.  

In this case, it's an instructor at a strip mall TaeKwonDo school in the American South, one of the schools you drive past without ever looking in, and which survive on the endless string of kids who want to sign up for karate lessons between grades 1 and 9.  And, a few adults who want to try themselves out.  

True to life, this means people who fashion themselves walking killing machines are surrounded all day by kids in badly-made karate uniforms, out of shape adults, and set up an environment in which they are the sole voice of authority.  McBride is seemingly custom made for this role - full of bravado, enjoying his place as king of his kingdom, and with a coterie of subjects who won't question his nonsense.

There's a hint that glory days are in the rear-view mirror for McBride, but he doesn't know it - but he's got the trophies he wants in his 1991 best-of actual trophy, a Ferrari and a party-ready blonde for a wife (who maybe was a model?  Or at least hit Glamour Shots a lot in the mid-90's).  When he finds she's cheated on him, his world is turned upside down, and - in typical McBride character fashion - unravels to hilarious effect.  

Things seem to be getting better when he's able to meet his idol, a discount Chuck Norris and star of direct-to-video martial arts movies.

Hill directs and appears in the movie, McBride is listed as a writer (no surprise).  What's odd is that there's a "Ben Best" involved who apparently didn't continue on the Hollywood journey with the pair as they reunited with David Gordon Greene.  Best is listed as a writer and star, and he's good, honestly.

It's got a low-budget look and feel that may mark the last very, very indie film I remember seeing before you could buy a camera that would make your no-budget feature look like a million bucks.  It's not unprofessional, it just sort of have a 90's vibe.

The cast was clearly mostly locals, but there's a few folks who went on to do other things.  Collette Wolfe is still out there working. And some of these folks wound up with a spot or two on other Jody Hill/ Danny McBride shows.

In general, I really like this movie, but I've also seen all of the other shows these guys put on HBO.  It's just what works for me.  And - if you've ever taken Martial Arts here in the states or considered martial arts, or have kids in martial arts and wonder who these people are who are making karate their livelihoods are - I think this cuts so close to the bone it may not be that funny to folks running those places.  But, unlike what would come later, this movie doesn't carry the actual emotional resonance of The Righteous Gemstones or other shows.  It's a great rough draft, but I do like that the shows do dig deeper.

Still, it remains unpredicatble in its way, and never really takes its foot off the gas as it delivers on the humor right through the last minutes.

*there's a somewhat unfun story here.  I technically passed testing, but the guys running the local association decided I was a liability when they realized they had a 6'5" 26 year old on their hands who was about to start sparring full-contact with their other clients.  I was basically told "you will never do full contact" and was told I wouldn't pass until I sparred in a way that wasn't going to scare my opponents, who could be, like twice my age and half my size.  

I had just gotten married and the *lifestyle* of TKD, which includes spending money and weekends at testing and tournaments was becoming a problem already, and I wasn't loving the tone that skipping those things from time-to-time was not being a team player.  Anyway, thus ended my career in TKD.

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