In 2008, Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s production company Gary Sanchez Productions picked up for distribution the low-budget indie comedy from 2006, The Foot Fist Way, in the hopes that it would achieve the same cult status and underground success as 2004’s Napoleon Dynamite, and because their senses of humor were so similar. Produced on a credit-card-budget of $80,000 by these film school friends, The Foot Fist Way was the first collaborative effort for writer/director/actor Jody Hill, writer/actor Danny McBride, and writer/actor Ben Best, and was indicative of the style of humor that would reappear in their next creation, the popular HBO show Eastbound and Down, which lasted four seasons from 2009-2013. The Foot Fist Way went under a lot of radars when it first came out, including mine, as I’d not even heard about it until after 2008’s Pineapple Express stoked my interest in McBride’s career.
Danny McBride plays a brazen Taekwondo instructor named Fred Simmons who runs a “McDojo” in North Carolina. He focuses on teaching his students confidence as well as the tenets of Taekwondo: courtesy, self-control, perseverance, integrity, and indomitable spirit. Self-absorbed and embarrassingly arrogant, Simmons struggles to maintain these tenets after he finds out that his wife Suzie (Mary Jane Bostic) gave her new boss a handjob. With Suzie moved in with her cousin, Simmons struggles to regain control and maintain his confidence by lashing out at those around him. He berates his students, flirts with a cute girl, and embarks on a road trip with his two favorite students and his high school friend and fellow black belt, Mike McAlister (Jody Hill). At the end of the road trip he’ll meet his idol, Hollywood semi-star Chuck “The Truck” Wallace (Ben Best), and talk him into making a guest appearance at his school’s next belt test. Since this was easy to miss, I won’t spoil anything. If you enjoy comedy in the vein of Pineapple Express, Observe and Report, Eastbound and Down, and Your Highness, you’ll likely get a kick out of The Foot Fist Way.
Today I was listening to old episodes of the Nerdist podcast when I came across an interview with McBride and Hill, where they talked about the experience of making The Foot Fist Way and Eastbound and Down (here’s the episode). They talk about how the “heroes” they write tend to go against normal audience expectations of what movie heroes are supposed to be because their heroes, the people for whom we’re supposed to be rooting, are actually such horrible people. It’s as if they’re daring us to like these characters, characters whom if we encountered in the real world we would avoid like lepers. McBride seems to specialize in playing scumbags, whether as cocky Taekwondo instructor Fred Simmons, as racist former baseball pro and general jerk Kenny Powers in Eastbound, or as a crude caricature of himself in This Is the End. I can easily see how the Foot Fist kind of humor can turn some people off, because the things Simmons says with such conviction are so obscenely self-absorbed, and yet he doesn’t recognize the absurdity, so we can’t help but laugh uncomfortably. Shortly after his wife cheats on him, he tells one of his adolescent students, “This world is a dark, dark forest, and if you open up a man, and look in most of their hearts, you’ll find disgust and evil… Your own parents, your mother and father, would slit your throat just to get ahead. And when you find a wife, you watch her. You don’t believe a single word she says, because, at the core, people are —-. The only person that you can trust is me, your Taekwondo instructor.”
The Foot Fist Way is a tightly structured indie film based on Jody Hill’s own personal experience as a Taekwondo instructor. Hill said, “I wanted to show the martial arts world that wasn’t. Many perceive from the movies that these instructors are peaceful creatures, but in actuality they’re rednecks who beat people up in bars and go through divorces.” Apart from McBride and Best, each of the actors playing Taekwondo students in the film are actual Taekwondo practitioners, many of whom were students of the actual Concord Taekwondo school in Concord, North Carolina. In the Nerdist interview, the filmmakers pointed out that the actors were paid $200 a week and stayed in an apartment complex owned by one of the filmmakers’ dads, because a bunch of tenants had just recently moved out, leaving a bunch of empty rooms available.
A side arc of the film features introverted high school student Henry (Carlos Lopez IV), one of Simmons’s pupils, who learns to stand up for himself while on the road trip. Perhaps the most interesting character is Mike McAlister, who, before the start of the road trip, turns to the kids in the back of the car and says, “Right away, before we go any further, I want to establish a code of conduct… You guys are going to see things you’ve never seen before, and when we get back, nobody’s gonna tattle… Because I’m gonna do a lot of bad things, and you guys aren’t going to stop me… Have you guys ever had sex?” It’s this kind of straight-forward ridiculousness, the anti-joke timing and delivery of it all, that makes me break out in inexplicable laughter. Collette Wolfe makes her debut film appearance as an attractive young woman who enlists in Simmons’s school while he’s in the midst of his breakdown. The scenes between McBride and Wolfe are electrifying, in an “I think this creep is about to molest me, where’s my Taser?” kind of way. As a point of trivia, Wolfe is Jody Hill’s wife, and she also plays as Nell in Observe and Report, Hill’s 2009 follow-up film.
Again, The Foot Fist Way is not for everybody. If you’ve seen anything Danny McBride has been in since his lead debut here, you already know exactly what to expect. During publicity for the film, McBride made an appearance on Conan O’Brien in character as Fred Simmons, and since he wasn’t known as an actor at the time, many audience viewers weren’t in on the joke and thought he was just a really terrible Taekwondo instructor. According to the Nerdist interview, they received angry messages of people saying that the man should have his school taken away from him. There’s the full clip of the Conan video here on Funny or Die and it’s well worth the watch. The characters of Mike and Julio both appear as members of Simmons’s demo team, though Henry is sadly absent for some reason.
The Foot Fist Way scored 53% on Rotten Tomatoes with 85 reviews. It scored even lower with audiences at 46%, some of whom reviewed it negatively for its perceived lack of jokes, amateurish acting performances, and shoddy cinematography, though to me, these are just a few of the charming selling points for which all indie comedies should aspire. While it’s not everyone’s cup of tai chi, I find it endlessly entertaining in an unsettling way and will rewatch it many times throughout the course of my life, especially if I ever need an ego boost, because no matter how down on myself I am or how dissatisfying I find my life, at least I’m not a douche like Fred Simmons. The Foot Fist Way is available on DVD from Amazon, but it has not yet been released on Blu-ray. Have you seen The Foot Fist Way? If so, what were your thoughts? (ssw)