Portly Kevin James playing a mixed martial artist strains credulity more so than his last movie, "Zookeeper," and that one had talking animals. While comedy has a long tradition of characters in situations out of their physical depths -- think tiny Charlie Chaplin in a boxing ring in "City Lights" (1931), or Bugs Bunny in innumerable such situations -- the humor comes out of their attempts to outsmart or avoid the opponent. When the physical danger turns real, so does the scene -- and once you take it at face value, you ask yourself: Why doesn't most of this movie take place in a coma ward?
James plays 42-year-old high school biology teacher Scott Voss, who was teacher of the year a decade ago, but is now so apathetic he ignores his students and hides behind the sports page. When budget cuts threaten to cut the music program of a beloved teacher (a comically poignant Henry Winkler), Scott vows to raise the $48,000 needed to keep it going. As a side benefit, his generosity impresses the hot school nurse (Salma Hayek).
Having only until the end of the school year, former college wrestler Scott enlists an MMA teacher (actor and real-life fighter Bas Rutten) to train him for low-stakes bouts that nonetheless pay well. Scott eventually catches the attention of Ultimate Fighting Championship commentator Joe Rogan (playing himself), who has a soft spot for music studies and elevates Scott to a Las Vegas UFC undercard as a last-minute replacement to fight a guy called The Executioner (real-life fighter Krzysztof Soszynski).
James, who was raised in Stony Brook, is slimmer and in better shape than we're used to seeing, but fits the part of an Ultimate Fighting Championship competitor as well as he'd fit the part of a New York Knick. The movie takes pains to show his pains -- a stitch here, a dislocated shoulder there -- but only to a point: The barrage of punches he takes to the head would in reality leave him bruised purple and disfigured with broken bones. There'd be nothing funny about that. And except for a few moments of effective slapstick -- the best of it involving vomiting in the ring, as hard as that is for me to write -- there's not much funny about this commercial for the UFC.
PLOT A high school teacher moonlights as a mixed martial artist. RATING PG (some rude humor, language and bouts of mild sports violence)
PLAYING AT Area theaters
BOTTOM LINE Kevin James, fighter? Harder to wrap your head around than a face-lock.