Kevin James isn't about to say his films follow a formula. But he is willing to say he wanted to try something different this time around.
The 42-year-old actor, best known for his nine seasons starring as "The King of Queens," has had mild movie hits as the lead in "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" and "Zookeeper" the past few years. Those came after sidekick turns in "Hitch" and "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry" – where he stole enough scenes to command his own starring vehicles.
But for "Here Comes the Boom," which opened in theaters this past Friday, James was in new territory. Never before has he felt so passionate about getting a film made.
James has no apparent ties to zoo animals, nor has he any particular affinity for mall cops. But for mixed martial arts, he has plenty of love. He's been training in the sport for years, is a frequent attendee of Ultimate Fighting Championship events around the country and has numerous friends in the fight industry.
And it took a little work, but he was able to not just sell "Boom" to the studios, but sell the UFC on it, as well. Fortunately, UFC owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta and company president Dana White were able to quickly see James wasn't out to make a slapstick comedy that poked fun at the sport.
"When we went to them, they're very close to the vest with everything they do, and they're very tight – with good reason," James recently told The Times. "They're the biggest (MMA) brand in the world. There's no doubt about it – there's nobody close. People have come to them many, many times to ask them to do a movie (and they said no).
"So when we did, I was thankful I had a relationship with the Fertittas, and with Dana, and that he was the one that saw the passion I had for this."
"Boom" tells the story of James' character Scott Voss, a former collegiate wrestler who as a biology teacher is having some trouble finding motivation to get to school every day. When financial hardships hit the school and the music program is going to be knocked out, along with its director (Henry Winkler), Voss takes action – by becoming an MMA fighter on the side to raise $48,000 to save the program.
Teachers becoming fighters is nothing new. In fact, James said he drew from the story of former Ohio math teacher Rich Franklin, who gave up teaching and became the UFC's middleweight champion and one of its most bankable fighters of all time.
"There were a bunch. It was kind of taking a little bit from all the fighters that I've met," James said. "Rich Franklin is a guy who's an inspiring story. There's also Mike Russow, who fought Todd Duffee and overcame big odds (to win). He didn't look like a fighter, necessarily. He's a Chicago cop. So there are a lot of little inspiration Rocky-type stories that I wanted to incorporate into this movie."
And that's where "Boom" is different than "Paul Blart" or "Zookeeper." The obstacle James' character is trying to overcome is very much a realistic premise, and while there is comedy, but "comedy in a real way," James said the film isn't just a comedy, and isn't just a movie about mixed martial arts.
"I feel a responsibility to myself to the story," said James, who co-wrote the screenplay. "It's just telling the story, do the best job I can with that and be as realistic as I can. And as an actor, grow and try to make my performance better than the last and in a different way. I want to make it as funny as possible, but funnier in a different way.
"That's the story of the movie – not being complacent with where you are in life, but trying to better yourself. We tried to do something a little bit different and bring the audience through it. I want to bring them to a very unique situation and I want the audience to go on the journey with me."
– Matt Erickson is an award-winning journalist who covers mixed martial arts for The Times, USA Today and is the assistant editor of MMAjunkie.com.