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Saturday, April 20

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Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story
3 of 5 stars
Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber.
Starring Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller, Christine Taylor, Rip Torn, Justin Long, Stephen Root, Joel David Moore, Chris Williams and Alan Tudyk.

The Iron Ladies
4 of 5 stars
Directed by Youngyouth Thongkonthun.
Starring Jesdaporn Pholdee, Sahaphap Tor, Ekachai Buranapanit, Giorgio Maiocchi, Chaicharn Nimpulsawasdi, Kokkorn Benjathikoon, Shiriohana Hongsopon, Phomsit Sitthijamroenkhun, Sutthipong Sitthijamroenkhun and Anucha Chatkaew.

Shaolin Soccer
4 of 5 stars
Directed by Stephen Chow.
Starring Stephen Chow, Vicki Zhao, Man Tat Ng, Patrick Tse, Yut Fei Wong, Kwok Kuen Chan, Lam Chi Chung, ChiSing Lam and Kai Man Tin.

With a brief appearance in Ben Stiller's Zoolander, Vince Vaughn began his transition from one hit wonder (with his break-out role in Swingers) to dumb comedy god. This welcome new trajectory has hit pay dirt in the past couple of years with Vaughn's roles in Old School, Starsky & Hutch, and Anchorman. I think of the entertaining but uneven Dodgeball as a minor speed bump between the underrated Starsky and the terrific Anchorman, but if you're the type that considers seeing people getting hit repeatedly by flying objects funny, Dodgeball should be worth your time. I have to admit, the second time I saw it -- as the second in a double bill with Anchorman at the Brew 'N View -- I enjoyed it a little bit more, either because of the copious amounts of alcohol coursing through my veins or the fact that I already knew that it wasn't that good.

Vaughn stars as Peter La Fleur, the proprietor of Average Joe's Gym, a hole in the wall that can't pay its bills and serves as a home away from home for its eclectic membership, including the nerdy Justin (Galaxy Quest's Justin Long), Owen (Joel David Moore), Gordon (Office Space's Stephen Root) and Firefly's Alan Tudyk as Steve the Pirate, a guy who acts like a pirate. In the bad guy role, Ben Stiller is White Goodman, the owner of the giant fitness chain Globo Gym based across the street, who wants to -- as in a thousand other movies before it -- tear down Average Joe's to make room for a parking lot. Peter is tempted by White's offer to buy out his failing business, but Gordon spots an ad in Obscure Sports Quarterly for the national dodgeball championships with a grand prize of conveniently just the right amount to save Joe's -- $50,000. In an effort to thwart this last-ditch attempt to save their gym, Globo Gym's Purple Cobras join the tournament as well, and the two teams eventually butt heads in the finals. (Get it? Joe's vs. Cobras.)

Sounds somewhat promising so far, right? (Maybe just a little?)

Unfortunately, despite several golden moments, including a face-off against a super-competitive girl scout troop, director Rawson Marshall Thurber's feature debut falls short of greatness because of its lame script and his own poor direction. Thurber drags out far too many jokes that might have worked better as quick throwaways, and, worse, several "comebacks" are supposed to make us laugh at the stupidity of the character delivering them (usually Stiller's). But most of the verbal repartee isn't so stupid it's clever, it's just stupid.

If Dodgeball doesn't satisfy your jones for a dumb sports comedy -- and it probably won't, unless you've been hit in the head a few too many times -- there are several really fun ones. Caddyshack, of course. The Bad News Bears. The first Major League. BASEketball has several almost sublime moments, thanks to Trey Parker and Matt Stone (who, contrary to popular belief, did not write or direct it). But one of my personal favorites of this "genre," if it can be called one, is the frequently hilarious, no-budget Thai film about a real-life championship-winning volleyball team comprised almost exclusively of gays, transgenders and transsexuals, The Iron Ladies.

The consensus on The Iron Ladies seems to be split between finding it a stereotype-laden step back for the acceptance of gays, transgenders and transsexuals the world over and a funny, affectionate farce, as I do. But if the write-ups at various lesbian and gay film festival websites are any indication, those who find The Iron Ladies to be offensive tend not to be of the gay or transgender community. One problem with accusing the characters of being stereotypes is how instantly recognizable their real-life counterparts are during the footage of the real-life players that runs during the film's credits. Or are the real people stereotypes, too? It's a comedy, guys. Calm down. Sure, The Iron Ladies is ridiculously campy, cliché in every possible respect and almost completely devoid of production values, but an unabashed glee permeates every frame of the film. What's not to love?

A huge hit across Asia, it is hard to imagine that The Iron Ladies didn't, in some small way, influence Stephen Chow's winning blend of martial arts and sports movie clichés, Shaolin Soccer, which has finally been released on DVD in America. Like Zhang Yimou's Hero, Infernal Affairs and other Asian blockbusters before it, Shaolin Soccer was edited down by Miramax and repeatedly delayed until it had long been available on import DVDs. Shaolin Soccer was also virtually ignored by Miramax's marketing department, resulting in a pretty lackluster return in the States, and I suspect a few of the people who were aware of its split-second release in theaters emerged from the darkness a little disappointed. When I finally saw Shaolin Soccer, my only major complaint was that the trailer showed too much of the film's ending, spoiling many of the film's best visual jokes, which is why I'm not going to spoil anything for you.

The most refreshing thing about Shaolin Soccer is how it defies an easy explanation. To seriously oversimplify the story, Stephen Chow plays Sing, one of six monks whose order disbanded after their master died. Of course, Sing, also known as "Mighty Iron Leg," is also a kung fu master. When he randomly meets a former soccer phenom named "Golden Leg" Fung (Man Tat Ng), he decides to reunite his former brothers to form a soccer team. They soon enroll in a tournament and face off against by the team run by Fung's archrival, Hung (Patrick Tse), called -- no kidding -- the Evil Team.

A few of Shaolin Soccer's characters transcend the one-dimensionality found in similar films, adding an unexpected depth to the film -- although just a tiny bit. When we first meet Fung and Hung, for instance, they are arguing over who gets to accept a "dishonor check" (a bribe, in properly translated English) to throw the game. Fung bullies Hung into submission and throws the game, but an angry mob attacks him, leaving "Golden Leg" crippled. (Oh, the irony!) At first, you think he's getting what he deserved, and you're right, but the tables are turned as the film flashes forward to the present, with Fung following around the now-rich Hung like a lapdog. Only when he's cruelly discarded does he fully realize how pathetic he has become and sets out to earn his redemption.

Never fear, despite the moments of drama, this isn't Remember the Titans, or even Bend It Like Beckham. Shaolin Soccer only takes itself seriously long enough for the dramatic scenes to work, rather than seeming like well-meaning but tiresome distractions from the fun, as in The Iron Ladies. Shaolin Soccer still traffics in all the usual sports movie clichés -- the training sequences, the loss of a key player leading to discouragement and the "secret weapon" at the end that you saw coming from a mile away. Despite a few clunkers, the wonderfully goofy slapstick mostly works, and the awesome, superpowered soccer action (assisted by a generous helping of low-budget CG) turn Shaolin Soccer into something wholly unique. Shaolin Soccer is an irresistibly silly, turn-off-your-brain treat.

This Christmas, give the gift of stupidity:

Dodgeball is newly available on DVD from Amazon and every other video store you can possibly think of.

The Iron Ladies is available on DVD from Amazon and for rent from Blockbuster (or at least the one near me), Netflix and other places. A sequel recently has been released on DVD, as well, but I haven't seen it yet.

Shaolin Soccer is available in a newly released American edition as well as a cheaper, import DVD. The American edition includes the 87 minute American version as well as the original 113 minute version. The cheaper import DVD contains only the original version and is available for $15 from Chicago Comics (and also Amazon, although for much more), but the translation is pretty bad, so I wouldn't advise getting it unless you understand Cantonese or you're the type who finds humor in broken English.

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About the Author(s)

Gordon McAlpin writes his movie reviews with a red light-up Spy Kids pen, which he thinks is the coolest thing ever, even though he didn't like the movie that much.

If you feel the need to get in touch with him directly, do so at .

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