NACHO LIBRE directed by Jared Hess, written by Jared Hess, Jerusha Hess and Mike White, with Jack Black, Héctor Jimenez and Ana de la Reguera. A Paramount Pictures release. 100 minutes. Opens Friday (June 16). For venues and times, see Movies, page 107. Rating: NNNNN
Los Angeles -- Superman returns in two weeks, but for now we get to savour the sight of another caped crusader - albeit one with a bit more girth - hurtling across the big screen.
Yes, we're talking about Jack Black, who as the titular Mexican wrestler Nacho Libre wears his blue tights and matching red cape, trunks and boots with enough cockiness to blow the man of steel right off the summer movie radar.
"I might as well be naked," says Black about the bulge-revealing suit he wears through much of the film. Today, he's sitting Buddha style in a Beverly Hills hotel room, wearing the cotton shirt/jeans/sandals combo that quietly announces comfort and success.
"That thing really reveals your shape. It was embarrasing, but it got me excited, because when I'm embarrassed about something I know it could be really good."
Black must be embarrassed a lot these days. In a few years, he's gone from standout supporting player (he put the "high" in High Fidelity) to bankable leading guy. Okay, Shallow Hal even opposite Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow didn't make him a star. He had to wait a few years for that in 2003's School Of Rock, which was fine-tuned by writer pal Mike White to fit Black's rock-lovin' oversized personality.
A number of kick-ass SNL hosting gigs later, he's so hot that he nearly got away with saying the cheesiest bit of dialogue in a movie last year: the final words of Peter Jackson's King Kong remake.
"I kept saying, "'Twas booty killed the beast,'" he says, half-serious. "I had to redo it five or six times. I was intimidated by Jackson and by the enormous budget. But I'd do it again."
Grappling with Nacho Libre, he admits, was scarier than Kong.
"It's the first time I've done a character who's that far away from who I am," he says about his lowly cook in a Mexican monastery who finds his true calling in the lucha libre wrestling ring.
In most of his earlier roles, Black's scruffy real-life persona has been close to the surface. He combines the likeability of clowns like Chris Farley and John Belushi with a touch of the sneering cynicism of that other famous Jack Nicholson. Audiences don't want to be him they feel they are him.
"I don't consciously think about what I represent to an audience," he says, "but obviously I'm not the sex symbol dude. I don't have to worry about wearing the latest fashions."
One thing that drew Black to the project was director Jared Hess, the guy who turned Napoleon Dynamite into one of the most profitable indie movies of all time.
"Jared doesn't like to get corny," he reveals. "If it ever gets too sentimental or syrupy, he'll tweak it with some dorkiness. He loves the strange and original, the peculiar. And those are things that make for some real fun movie-watching."
Black did most of his own stunt work, but he points out that he didn't catch on fire or fall from a 100-foot cliff into a lake.
"But I got pretty battered and bruised," he says, showing me a series of tiny white stitches under his eyebrow. He raises his brows and says with mock pathos, "Holy shit, I'm scarred for life!"
The impressive Spanish-inflected accent came via hours of studying language tapes.
"But for the serious scenes," he says, his voice plunging to a melodramatic whisper, "I studied the voice of Ricardo Montalban, to get that sense of gravitas."
Black's obviously not about to abandon comedy any time soon. In fact, he says he doesn't care about a film's genre, just who's sitting in the director's chair.
"There are only a handful of really creative, original directors, and I want to work with those guys no matter what the script is."
Consider some of his directors. There's not a dud in the bunch. Stephen Frears for High Fidelity; Richard Linklater for School Of Rock; Jackson on Kong; even Shallow Hal was helmed by the savvy Farrelly Bros.
Next up, Black's appearing opposite Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh in Noah Baumbach's follow-up to his acclaimed The Squid And The Whale. Sounds like a smart move.
Black's also pumped about his years-in-the-making pet project, Tenacious D In "The Pick Of Destiny," a rock 'n' roll flick starring his bandmate Kyle Gass and a host of music/comedy types like Ben Stiller, Tim Robbins (his former acting school buddy) and Meat Loaf, who plays his dad.
"It's about two dudes who are on a quest to become the greatest band on earth," he says of the film, which comes out in the fall. "Sasquatch is present, and so is the devil. We're swinging for the fences with this film, like Babe Ruth. If you miss you might feel like a fool. But if you hit it right on, there'll be nothing like it."
Music talk obviously gets him excited; that record store clerk in High Fidelity wasn't a big stretch. So what's he listening to lately?
"As always, Radiohead dominates my brainwaves. That dude's a genius. Everyone knows he's the Mozart of the 21st century. I love that new Raconteurs single on the radio [here he breaks into song], "Steady as she goes, steady as she goes,' even though it makes me think of Joe Jackson's Is She Really Going Out With Him?"
"I also like this band I saw on TV the other day, Wolfmother, these kids from Australia who sound a lot like Deep Purple or Black Sabbath. They're pretty bad-assed. I was impressed."
He pauses. "I'm going to have to go kick their ass and show them who's boss."
So Tenacious D could be going Down Under?
"Hell, yeah," he says, not missing a beat. "I've got me some wrestling moves now. I'm ready to take on any new rockers who think they're gonna come and take over the limelight."
NACHO LIBRE (Jared Hess) Rating: NN
Nacho Libre is a bit too structurally libre in its silly but gentle look at an honourable man named Ignacio (Jack Black) who works as a cook at a Mexican monastery but moonlights as a lucha wrestler. The outrageous sport of Mexican wrestling is ripe for satire, but the writers and director Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite) leave big gaps in the story and have problems with tone. Farce? Satire? What they end up with is adequate as a kids' movie. (It's no surprise that Nickelodeon is a producer.)
There's plenty of amusing slapstick (much of it already in the film's trailers), but the laughs don't go very deep, and there's an inner logic missing. Black, though, mugs copiously for the camera, and in a few inspired moments - such as his delivery of a song to a competing wrestler - he's as wildly manic as Robin Williams in his prime.