Sunday, February 21, 2010

FIREBALL (2009)

Are you a sports fan? Do you get tired of team sports where they don't let defenders defend? Where the defense gets penalized for brushing the hem of the offensive players' garments? Well, the film industry of Thailand has a new sport just for you. It's "fireball," -- yes, that's what they literally call it -- and it adds to the existing thrills of basketball the extra excitement of that ancient custom of running the gantlet. The rules are simple: the first team to score wins. But won't it be over quickly? Isn't this basketball, after all? No, it's fireball, and that means if you want to score a basket you've got five guys in front of you to beat down before they beat you down. There's no shot clock, and given the people trying to punch, kick and elbow you as you try to line up a jumper it could well take a while to sink one. But the rules take that into account: if no one scores, then the team with the last man standing wins.

According to Thanakorn Pongsuwan's movie, fireball's been around since 1974 -- the league still has the original game ball -- but this is the first time it's been depicted on film. The release of Fireball may reflect a liberalization of the sport, since the film's expose of corrupt practices in management might not have made it past censorship during the period when most people didn't realize that the game existed. It turns out that league teams are run by gangsters who can make more money by making and taking bets than they'd earn in championship prize money. For that reason many games are fixed, and the players get in on the act sometimes for various reasons. One guy has his twin brother's medical care to worry about. Another's trying to pay his girlfriend's debts to avoid her relapsing into prostitution. Still another, half black, has a baby on the way to take care of. Things are tough all over in the world of fireball. Off court, a good deal of the action takes place in a sprawling dilapidated apartment complex, and given the dirty goings on the Fireball movie sometimes comes across like a cross between Gomorrah and Gymkata.

The film ultimately falls on the Gymkata side of that equation. For the country that aims to set the modern standard in martial arts movies, Fireball is pretty bad. The main problem is the director's frantic, edit-happy manner of shooting the film. The virtue of superior Thai fight films is our clear view of unwired action, but Thanakorn films Fireball like a music video. It's all too obvious that he has to fake most of the basketball action -- not that there's much of it. You'd expect shooting baskets to be filmed the way a decent Thai action director shoots fight scenes. Instead, Thanakorn will show a player heaving the basket, then cut to the ball sailing toward the basket. Then he'll cut to a reaction shot from someone. Then it's back to the ball coming in for a landing. Then another reaction shot, and then the ball finally goes through the net. At many points you can easily lose track of the action. In the middle of one game the guy with the ball eludes some pipe-wielding defenders, and as they ask where he went he seems literally to have disappeared from the game and the movie for a few minutes. Thanakorn reduces his game too often to just plain chaos.

Overall it's hard to follow the action because the sport as Thanakorn has imagined it really doesn't make sense. The rules change from game to game. The first contest we see opens with a jump ball, with the two teams on opposite sides of a midcourt line. But the next game opens with the two sides charging one another Braveheart style from opposite ends of the court as the ball is shot into play. Finally, for the championship game, the court (the cargo hold of a freighter) is littered with piles of pallets for the players to jump up and down from to attack each other. Throughout, the first-score-wins rule makes you wonder what the spectators expect to see. You'd think a marginally competent basketball team could pass the ball downcourt and sink the winning pill in a matter of seconds, perhaps before anyone hits them. But you get the impression that the fans, apart from having betting interests in the outcome, come out to see the teams beat the pee out of one another. The players certainly spend more time doing that than trying to score, and when foreign objects are thrown into the cage it's obviously not to help anyone shoot baskets.

For a moment I thought Fireball was going to finish with a real flourish, with its chain-link basket becoming an improvised flying guillotine, but the film is not that imaginative.

In practice, the basketball side of fireball looks pretty superfluous. Perhaps it was imagined entirely in the hope of attracting an American audience. But it went straight to DVD in this country last month, so so much for that idea. Fireball is really a hopeless proposition. Its Thai fighting is second rate, and the only way the basketball angle would have meant anything to American audiences is if there'd been an American character in the movie. That leaves indiscriminate violence as the only potential attraction for anyone other than those on the alert for bad movies. I rented this from the Albany Public Library fully expecting a bad "new sport" movie, though holding out hope for something better. I suppose I wasn't really disappointed, since I expected it to stink, but unless you're into utterly mindless violence that doesn't even stink in a memorably entertaining way you can abandon hope before renting Fireball.

The film does have it's admirers, and if you want a second opinion here's a review from someone who's seen more Thai films than I have. And here's an English-subtitled trailer, uploaded to YouTube by richyjac:

6 comments:

Rev. Phantom said...

Too bad this wasn't better--as soon as you mentioned Gymkata I perked up. I love that movie. Sounds like this could have had some potential if executed differently...then again maybe not. I'm all for utterly mindless violence though.

Ninja Dixon said...

I think this was a very good movie, and way better than a hyped one like The Sanctuary - who has that classic thai-action, but it's so lousy edited that you don't understand anything. In Fireball I think they handled the action excellent!

http://ninjadixon.blogspot.com/2010/02/fireball-2009.html

Samuel Wilson said...

Rev. I wonder whether I should have said Rollerball instead of Gymkata, but martial arts were foremost in my mind.

Ninja: I read your review and you obviously have a different standard of comparison than I do. I haven't seen the films you disparage, so the only things I could compare Fireball with were the Tony Jaa films, which may make the comparison unfair. My problem with the movie may be the sort of action I was expecting: virtuoso martial arts and some equivalent level of basketball athletics. Instead we get what looked to me like choppily edited brawling, which may be appropriate if we take Rollerball as the film's real inspiration rather than something like Shaolin Soccer. In any event I'm going to add the link to your review to the original post so people can get a second opinion. Thanks for writing.

hobbyfan said...

Muay Thai, not "fireball", would be Thailand's #1 sport, IMPO. I was struck by the inscription, "Muay Thai dunk", on the DVD cover. Let's see them try to do MMA crossed with football....

Samuel Wilson said...

Hobby, fireball is just two great tastes that taste great together, or are supposed to ... You might be interested in a prequel that's supposedly in the works that will reveal the origin of the film's fictional sport. As for your modest proposal, how do guys padded up like NFL players go about choking one another out? Solve that problem and you can go to Hollywood!

Ninja Dixon said...

But sure, I understand what you mean regarding how they filmed the action. I get a kick out (haha) of the Tony Jaa-style where you see everything in glorious wideshots, and I love that. I've been trying to find something else in that style from Thailand from another team, but failed. The Sanctuary was a try, but failed totally.

I've seen the last movie from the Fireball-director, Demon Warriors - so I knew what to expect, and that's maybe why I appreciated it more than you. Demon Warriors is good to, but the quality/energy drops in the last third of the movie.

For me I think the story and acting was the best with Fireball, and action was third - but I still like it a lot.