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Crouching Ping, Hidden Pong

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Balls of Fury," a whimsical, ping-pong-themed spoof of martial arts movies, comes across like the spring play at a financially strapped middle school. Costumes? Cheesy. Special effects? Ditto. Plot? There just wasn't time.

But all is to some degree mitigated by the pluck of the players, intent on having a good time and winking occasionally to the audience, as if in commiseration. Does that mean it's good? Heavens, no. But it has its seedy charms.

Dan Fogler, an aspirant to Jack Black-dom, plays Randy Dakota, a former table-tennis Olympian who's been reduced to sideshow status at a downscale Reno buffet. In two shakes, he's collared by FBI agent Ernie Rodriquez (TV's George Lopez) and forced into a scheme to infiltrate the hideout of desperado arms dealer Feng (Christopher Walken), who just happens to be a pingpong fanatic.

Walken epitomizes the appealing slovenliness with which this dog-days diversion has been thrown together. Not only does he look like Elvis in Fu Manchu drag, but when delivering his lines, he also bizarrely lowers or raises his voice at arbitrary points, as if on a dare. In spite of every indication that Feng is, indeed, Chinese, Walken never budges from his calling-card Queens accent. The makeup people, perhaps hampered by budget constraints, haven't fiddled with his Western eyes in the least.

Before competing in the climactic tournament, Dakota must submit to the tutelage of a blind pingpong savant and restaurateur, Master Wong (the always beguiling James Hong). He's an unhinged Mr. Miyagi, whose sultry niece (Maggie Q) mercilessly drives the rusty pupil to new heights, even as she frustrates his libido. Meanwhile, Wong waxes rhapsodic about his beloved game, "the sport of emperors and bandits alike," or explodes with lines such as, "Your temper brings dishonor on my happy Moo Shu Palace!"

"Balls of Fury" takes its basic outline from Bruce Lee's "Enter the Dragon," but it owes at least as much to "The In-Laws" (1979), another absurdist romp featuring Hong. Most of the shtick, such as that involving Dakota's raving, German nemesis (Thomas Lennon, one of the writers), is threadbare. But when Feng bestows one of a chirpy bevy of male courtesans (Diedrich Bader) on a bewildered Dakota, the proceedings, while not exactly funny, are peculiar enough to provoke the question, "What were they thinking?" That makes this movie more provocative than most summer releases. (PG-13) 90 min. S

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