Lasciate ogne speranza, voi chi’intrate. How did it come to this? At the height of his power in Hollywood in 1999, Adam Sandler founded his own production company as a way to continue making the movies he enjoys. Over the years his films have slowly morphed into a pariah on the landscape of big budget studio comedies, becoming thinly veiled excuses for lavish vacations. But do they truly represent the nadir in the career of one of comedy’s once-brightest stars? Are there any hidden or underrated gems? Is there such a thing as too few fart jokes? Will I retain any sense of sanity by the end of this? Join me and find out, as we venture to the Happy Valley.

There aren’t many genres more formulaic than the underdog sports film, which is why I went into Here Comes the Boom with reserved skepticism. Still knowing next to nothing about the film — I paid very little attention to non-Oscar films at the time of its release — I had low expectations based not only on the overall Happy Madison modus operandi but the production company’s own history with sports movies. Boom never sets out to reinvent the wheel for the underdog sports film, but where it succeeds is rejecting nearly everything for which Happy Madison is known.

Frank Coraci, who directed what may be the best overall film in this series in Click, returns and applies his signature preference for storytelling over humor. Coraci, after working with James previously in the forgettable Zookeeper, cares more about the characters than cheap jokes or situations. Boom isn’t notable for its abundance of jokes but for its lack of them. Here is a film that prioritizes character-based humor over lazy observations, one-note scenes or easy stereotypes. Once the main thrust of the story reveals itself — a good 25 to 30 minutes in — the film never resorts to the types of jokes that we’ve seen time and time again (even in similar sports films) in this series.

James utilizes his knack for physical comedy in a very literal sense, and the end result is his best performance to date of this project. He plays Scott Voss, a high school biology teacher who’s a couple years past his prime and is simply trying to get through to the end of every day. What it was exactly that caused Voss to lose his way is sadly never developed, but nevertheless, his relationships with his fellow teachers are the main focus here. Voss soon learns that his school’s budgets are being significantly cut and, in order to save his friend Marty’s (Henry Winkler) job, he has to raise $48,000 before the end of the school year. Going nowhere after teaching citizenship classes (I’m certain I groaned at the introduction of this scene because I was expecting a room full of crudely-drawn caricatures), he takes up amateur mixed martial arts as a way to make some fast cash. What sets Boom apart from The Longest Yard and The Benchwarmers could fill a book, but it would primarily be the believability of the setup. James himself is in the ring during these fight scenes and he trained intensely for the role. Is it realistic that James, even slimmed down and beefed up, could beat a UFC fighter? Not really, but Coraci and James put in the necessary work of making it look like it could happen. Coraci films the scenes — and editor Scott Hill coherently cuts them together — with a vibrant energy that was lacking, even in the best moments, of The Longest Yard.

If you would have told me going into this that James’ sidekick throughout the film is Bas Rutten, playing a vaguely European immigrant and former UFC fighter, I would have bet house money on his character being a dumb, uninformed, freedom-loving wannabe American. (Call it the Rob Schneider effect.) Thankfully that’s not the case here, and Rutten is given room to breathe to give a grounded performance of a real human being. Sadly, the same courtesy can’t fully be extended to Salma Hayek as James’s love interest, but she at least has decent chemistry with the actor during their scenes together. Winkler, who has become a semi-regular presence here, also gives a sweetly melancholy performance that shows his range as a comedic and dramatic actor.

A large majority of Happy Madison films that we’ve covered, especially in the later period, are family-friendly to a fault. Boom manages to not be hindered by its PG rating. Given the inherent violence of the MMA scenes, I’m fairly surprised the film wasn’t bumped up to a PG-13. Call me naïve, but I went into each of James’s fights unsure of what the outcomes would be. And it’s because of James’s commitment to realism, largely by not using a body double and by fighting against real MMA fighters, that the film strongly sells its dramatic stakes. Plenty of films that we’ve covered telegraph their endings long before they develop, including Coraci and James’s last collaboration, but by investing in its characters and providing some well-done action scenes, Boom at least makes the journey worthwhile. If I’m being honest, the latest stretch of films in this project has been a real drag, making me want to throw in the towel. But it’s the hidden gems to be found, like this film, that makes me want to get back up and keep on going.

  • “I’m Getting Paid How Much?!” Inexplicable Cameo Award: Not a ton of options here, though there may or may not be a ton of recognizable UFC personalities that appear. As someone who’s seen nearly every episode of the sitcom Reba, it was nice to see Melissa Peterman show up as Kevin James’ sister-in-law.
  • Just Go With It – The Happy Madison Promise: The flourish of the high school band flying out to Las Vegas is an unnecessary detail meant to drum up sentiment. I suppose it works, but it just felt silly at the time.
  • Fart Joke Counter: None! I thought there may have been one right before James throws up his applesauce in the ring, but the evidence remains inconclusive.
  • The Walkout Test: Easy pass. I might even consider rewatching the film again in my leisure time. Imagine that!
  • NEXT TIME: It’s sequel time, baby! Greg Lindberg joins me to discuss the life, legacy and laughs (OK, so maybe just two out of those three) of Grown Ups 2.