Rookie writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber makes this bold prediction about his film debut: ''It's going to be the greatest dodgeball movie in the history of cinema!'' Yes, folks, dodgeball, the great American recess sport. ''So fast, so unforgiving,'' says Vince Vaughn. ''It appeals to that primal need to hit someone.'' Yet not many in Hollywood were sold on the prospects of a movie about stars throwing rubber balls at each other. ''Everyone in town told us the same thing: 'It's really funny. We don't want to make it,''' says Thurber, a commercial director and self-professed jock. By the time he landed a meeting with Ben Stiller's DreamWorks-based production company, Thurber was beginning his pitch with a rant that would make Bobby Knight blush. ''I went off on why they would be f---ing crazy if they didn't make this film, and they said, 'Wait! We want to do it.''' But not at DreamWorks: Though championed by recently departed production chief Michael De Luca, ''Dodgeball'' was bounced out-of-bounds by studio higher-ups who, yes, just didn't get it. However, the studio did give Stiller permission to take it elsewhere. Ultimately, Fox wanted to play ball.
Vaughn stars as the owner of a financially strapped gym threatened by a takeover by Stiller, a mustachioed fitness-club tycoon. To raise cash, he assembles a ragtag team of losers (including Christine Taylor) to try to win a Vegas dodgeball tourney. (''It's like 'The Bad News Bears' meets the island of misfit toys,'' says Vaughn.) Despite the sports-culture satire (games are televised on ESPN8, dubbed the Ocho) and broad set pieces (like a car-dodging training sequence), the comedy takes its dodgeball seriously. Sorta. ''I took a few to the head. It doesn't hurt that bad,'' says Vaughn. ''Smash cut to: three actors dead on the set of 'Dodgeball.'...''
THE GOOD NEWS Vaughn (''Old School'') and Stiller (''Along Came Polly'') have their box office A-game on.
THE BAD NEWS Talk about underdog: ''The Terminal,'' the next Spielberg-Hanks opus, opens the same day.