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Fireball
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by Jay Seaver

"I call foul!"
2 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2009 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Before seeing this movie, I had a whole list of ideas for the review's introduction in my head, involving tournament brackets, sports injuries, athletes who get involved in crime, gambling scandals, and things that really should draw a referee's whistle. My heart's just not in it, though. The concept of martial arts basketball may not be foolproof, but it should be significantly harder to screw it up as badly as this movie does.

"Fireball", we are told, is a variation on basketball where the first team to sink a basket wins. Some may find such relatively low-scoring affairs less than exciting, but the lack of scoring is compensated for by the fact that there are no refs to call fouls, and teams are made up of skilled street fighters and martial artists. No holds are barred, which is why Tan has spent the last year in a coma. His twin brother Tai (Preeti Barameeanat), just released from jail, doesn't know about fireball until he's mistaken for Tan and recruited for junior mob boss Den's (Phutharit Prombandal) team (fireball is, understandably, an underground activity). He joins team captain Zing (9 Million Sam), young hotshot Iq (Kannut Samerjai), powerhouse Muk (Kumpanat Oungsoongnern), and K (Anuwat Saejao), who was accused of throwing a game the year before. The finals will be against Ton (Arucha Tosawat), the man who put Tan in the hospital, but winning involves just surviving long enough to get there.

Fireball is a deeply stupid movie, but let's face it - this is the sort of movie where any logic that gets in the way of the premise should be quickly and mercilessly dispensed with. Side plots that are riddled with clichés in flagrant attempts to pull at the heart strings? Bring them on. Sure, the storylines we're given are trite as they come, but they do add to the stakes of the games, and they do give us all the reason we need to root for Tai and his team.

All we ask in return is that the action carries the weight. Fireball frequently lives up to that, especially in the first two games and the practice sessions and tryouts leading up to them. The results aren't perfect, but the atmosphere of crazed gambling comes across, you can tell that the players have real skill, and what we see does look like an improbable fusion of basketball and muay thai. It may not be perfect, but it's well-done enough that the audience can argue about the relative merits of various styles of play - as in, it didn't seem like the other team in the second game was terribly interested in playing basketball at all, engaging in some ridiculously extreme hack-a-Shaq tactics.

And that's just a preview of how the movie screws everything up in the last act.

Nobody cares about the rivalries between the various mob bosses - they're just there so that there can be fireball games, so why make a big deal out of Den's position? We know what we want from this movie, even if it's not exactly the same for all of us - although I bet most audience members' desires for the climax are somewhere in the general vicinity of "Tai simultaneously slam-dunks a basketball and kicks Ton in the face, hard enough to send him flying across the court". The final game is a disaster, though - the standard basketball court is dispensed with for an emptied dry-dock filled with cover to climb upon and hide behind, and the picture takes on the worst aspects of bad martial arts films and bad television sports: It's played at night, so it's too dark to tell one player from another, shoots too close, cuts too often, and doesn't let the audience know who has the damn ball. Of course, the ball becomes irrelevant quickly enough, and while the brutality of the ensuing melee is impressive, it's difficult to see and neither the game nor its aftermath is very satisfying.

It's almost ironic that parts of this movie are pretty decent - the cast, composed mostly of relative unknowns, manages to sell the concept well enough, and some of the scene-setting photography is very nice (even if the action photography is often a mess). When we get a good look at the fighting, it's not bad at all, and when director Thanakorn Pongsuwan and his three co-writers embrace the gonzo, anything-goes potential, the movie can be a blast.

Still, when a movie has a three-word pitch and advertising campaign ("muay thai basketball"), the filmmakers need to stay focused on that. The big climactic set piece does a terrible job of delivering the muay thai basketball, and that's an unforgivable lapse.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=19295&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/27/09 16:08:48
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Fantasia Festival For more in the 2009 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2009 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2009 series, click here.

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USA
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  DVD: 26-Jan-2010

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