Jared Hess’ forgotten homage is a bulletproof 2000s comedy - and a perfect soapbox for its erratic leading man, writes Adam Solomons
In Unsung Masterpieces, writers wax lyrical about the great films they think have been unduly ignored, are due for reappraisal, or have slipped beneath the radar.
When the “Jack Black is hot” meme rocked the internet during the late weeks of 2020 (it was a long year), one turn in his illustrious filmography was acrimoniously missing from the discourse: his wildly underappreciated yet truly stellar performance in the 2006 Nickelodeon Films comedy Nacho Libre.
The largely forgotten and very wacky sports-religion-romance doesn’t have the cultural legacy of School of Rock or High Fidelity. Its awards run was restricted to the Kids’ Choice Awards, MTV Movie Awards and the Teen Choice Awards. And serious critics shunned it. Take Roger Ebert, who wrote: “It takes some doing to make a Jack Black comedy that doesn’t work. But Nacho Libre does it.”
Fresh off those latter two hits, Black’s rapid rise from goofy background actor to bona fide leading man was almost complete. And Jared Hess, the off-centre filmmaker behind indie smash-hit Napoleon Dynamite, was surely the director to take him over the line. Black and co-producers Mike White, Julia Pistor and David Klawans cobbled together $35 million from Nickelodeon, a stellar sum for an out-and-out comedy by today’s standards. What could go wrong?
Commercially speaking, not much. Nacho grossed almost $100 million worldwide during a purple patch for Nickelodeon Films, which also produced moneymakers Charlotte’s Web and animated cow comedy Barnyard. Black’s wackiness was praised in some corners, as was his unrivalled willingness to take comedic risks. Hess hadn’t exactly set the world alight with his highly-anticipated follow-up to Napoleon – which grossed half as much on a budget one percent of Nacho Libre’s size – but he hadn’t phoned it in, either.
Even so, like the rest of Nickelodeon’s 2006 release roster, Nacho Libre was consigned to the dustbin of history – and the Blockbuster Video bargain aisle. With the critical disappointment of Libre and Nancy Meyers’ seasonal romcom The Holiday, plus the total failure of Tenacious D flick The Pick of Destiny, 2006 proved a profoundly underwhelming year for Jack Black. What was supposed to be his movie star arrival turned out to be a mere hiccup. It would be another two years for Kung Fu Panda to resurrect his Hollywood mojo.
Fifteen years on, Nacho Libre occupies a very different place in the culture to the pulpy kids movie with dodgy accents and toilet humour it was first greeted as. Those things are all still true – and very funny – but Black’s audacious line readings, Jared Hess’s genuinely impressive and inventive direction, and a pretty tremendous score and soundtrack supervised by Danny Elfman, all hold up remarkably well. It feels silly to say a movie which grossed $100 million worldwide could be considered a “cult film” in any conceivable way, but Nacho Libre gets pretty close.
The first thing which stands out about Nacho Libre all these years later are its arresting visuals. Shot on location in Oaxaca, southern Mexico, the vistas and valleys surrounding Nacho’s modest orphanage are gorgeously captured. Cinematographer Xavier Grobet mostly worked on Mexican documentaries before moving to Hollywood to work on a few episodes of Deadwood. The patience shown in his shots of the Oaxaca Desert far outstrips those of any comparable comedy, never mind one where the main character farts before leaping in the air no fewer than twice.
The sound design is another unexpectedly impressive asset, and straddles the line between the movie’s lowbrow humour and moments of genuine artistry. From the moment Steven smacks Nacho in the face to the infamous stretchy pants to the crunching of toast, slapstick sound effects are leaned into to such an extent they’re hard to forget. Like a 1960s Batman TV special, period schlockiness becomes a staple of Nacho Libre’s comedy – and a winning one, too.
Which period it’s actually based in is harder to tell. The real-life Nacho, Fray Tormenta, spent 23 years in the ring between 1973 and 1996. Judging by the cars and phone boxes, the early 70s is a good guess. But by not telling us, Hess adds to Nacho Libre’s ethereal feeling. In the film’s dreamlike world, Nacho and Stephen’s long and winding road towards destiny is made immediately resonant, regardless of its time setting.
That duality between trying to be one of the most immature comedies of recent years and a fully sincere attempt to tell a coming-of-age story is ultimately what makes Nacho Libre great, though. The same applies to its ideas about religion, which are somehow deeply blasphemous and yet not at all disrespectful. Unlike Paul Verhoeven’s recent Benedetta, for example, which uses an irreverence towards the church to make broader political points about the nature of power in society, Nacho Libre lands jabs at organised religion without ever really trying to dismantle it. Maybe 2006’s family audience wasn’t ready for that, but either way it facilitates a better and more nuanced set of ideas about faith and devotion. That Nacho’s ultimate goal is really the welfare of the monastery – or his idea of what that is – as much as personal glory says a lot about the film’s sophisticated politics.
Perhaps even more so after 15 years, Jack Black’s full-throated commitment to the bit feels like a breath of fresh air in this modern era when funny leading men seem less willing to be silly than ever before. Black’s toned-down performances in the Jumanji franchise, balanced with Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart’s own oddly refined turns, make it easy to see how much things have changed.
All those components add up to make Nacho Libre a winning early-2000s comedy and, dare I say, something of an unsung masterpiece, too. Like its titular unlikely hero, here's a film that never fails to creep round a corner and jump out with a hilarious signature move to make us fall in love with it all over again.
Nacho Libre is available on various streaming platforms.