Jared Hess returns to the theme of the unlikely ‘superhero’ that characterised his quirky hit Napoleon Dynamite (2004). Nacho Libre retains the deadpan slapstick that characterised his debut feature and opens the canvas (and indeed budget) to allow for a larger cast and location filming in Mexico. The results are mixed. While the film doesn’t quite live up to its ambitions it nonetheless provides good, solid, entertainment.
Ignacio (Jack Black), a monk at the bottom of the ecclesiastical food chain is finding life frustrating. His budget for feeding the monastery orphanage is non-existent, forcing him to scavenge for broken tortilla chips in the back alleys of the local town and serve unrecognisable sludge to the hungry children. It is during an altercation over a bag of crunchy corn crumbs that he meets Esqueleto (Héctor Jiménez) but rather than berate him for stealing from hungry children he hatches a plan. The two will join forces to fight in the stretchy-pant world of tag-team wrestling, a tough trade but one that will get Esqueleto out of poverty and the children some much needed bowls of salad. Who knows, if they follow their dreams to the higher echelons of the wrestling federation the kids could get a holiday bus and our hero may, just may, be able to woo the beautiful Sister Encarnación (Ana de la Reguera).
If you don’t find the idea of tubby Jack Black wearing coloured lycra being thrown around by burley blokes in gold lamé masks or savaged by pigmies amusing, then this is not going to be the film for you. As a prime concept, though, it’s a cracker: "monk feeds orphans by becoming a wrestler". When you add in a clear love for the Mexican wrestling genre (a genre that encompasses not only the actual sport but also works of fantastic film) as opposed to its faux-death-goth US counterpart, you have an idea made in heaven. Hess clearly likes his lucha libre films but his style of delivery is at odds with the genre’s hyperbolic pulp and horror trappings, so he wisely places events in a far less fantastical context – no super-criminals or Aztec mummies here. Instead he blends the lucha libre film with an orphanage drama to base things a little more in reality. But only a little. Hess’s use of slapstick is apparent not only in the wrestling scenes but also in the training routines and the incidental details. Jack Black throws a beehive at Esqueleto, is tossed about like a rag-doll when hit by a charging bull he provoked with his red cape and has numerous accidents with his bizarrely constructed lawn-mower-trike. The deadpan approach is even more prevalent in the scene when he delivers impromptu last rites on a man who isn’t yet dead. He makes a swift exit.
As a wrestling film you do, of course, need to believe in the wrestling. Nacho Libre‘s combination of traditional wrestling (no dollybirds and backstage soap-operas here, it’s far more World of Sport with a few fireworks) with comically enhanced wirework make the bouts both exciting and funny. Unfortunately the film has a downside and that is mainly due to its star. Jack Black manages to be a likeable (if unlikely) central hero for most of the time. The problem lies with his need to gurn and over-emphasise his usual set of stock poses (wide eyes, raised eyebrows, pursed lips). While this worked well in School of Rock (2003) where the contrast between a juvenile adult and adult juveniles provided much of the comedy, the effect here is jarring given that the rest of the cast are performing with the earnestness that is required to stop the film degenerating into a cross between The Sound of Music and The Three Stooges.
Nacho Libre is a likeable, unusual comedy that is by turns kitsch and uplifting. Its faults are outweighed by its love of genre and the fact that there really isn’t anything else like it out there. Try the Nacho. You might like it.
Nacho Libre is out now.