Fist Fight is the latest in a long line of films that require no explanation beyond the title. Unlike The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Wedding Crashers, however, the story and humor cannot sustain an otherwise quickly exhausted premise.
Charlie Day, an inexplicable choice to play the straight man in a comedy if there ever was one, stars as Andy Campbell, an anxiety-ridden teacher working at a rundown high school who is simultaneously waiting for his wife to give birth and to discover whether or not he still has a job. It’s also senior prank day, which in the Fist Fight universe is code for a day where literally anything can happen and no one really follows any sense of order. Teachers skip classes, students draw dicks everywhere, and let’s not forget the meth-addled horse running loose in the hallways. All of this is more or less considered normal, and none of it lands the way the screenwriters clearly thought it would.
Andy’s day is made worse when he crosses paths with Strickland (Ice Cube), a fellow teacher who has had enough of the school’s poor conditions and general lack of discipline. Andy foolishly decides to name Strickland as the perpetrator of a wild classroom incident, leading Strickland to lose his job, and in retaliation a fight is set for the school parking lot immediately following the final bell.
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This all happens in the film’s first twenty minutes or so, and everything that follows is a series of setups—largely ruined by the film’s lengthy promotional campaign—that find Andy doing his best to avoid fighting Strickland. Every attempt at avoiding conflict only seems to stoke the fires of battle. He even calls 911, but the operator laughs him off the line.
Fist Fight would work better with a more believable average guy in the lead role. This is not to say Day’s work is not funny, but his comedic senses are best reserved for the extremely quirky smart guy (Pacific Rim) or wildly unpredictable best friend (It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia). The part of Andy restrains Day in a way that limits his ability to lean on what his audience loves, leaving the sum total of his comedy style to appear like nothing more than a series of unrelated and irrational one-liners said at an ever-so-quickly crescendoing pitch that ultimately ends in inaudible shrieks.
Ice Cube fares far better here, largely because he’s playing an exaggerated version of the same gruff, no-nonsense character he’s portrayed in nearly every film he himself did not direct. If you told me Strickland was the same character Cube plays in the Ride Along films on special assignment I wouldn’t think twice. Every turn is predictable and every gag is familiar. Still, it works.
Though Fist Fight leverages the poor state of our education system for laughs and an eventual cop-out to reason the fight itself, the bulk of the film avoids making any real comments on how we treat our public schools as a nation. It’s a missed opportunity that could have gone a long way toward grounding the film in a reality we all recognize, which might have played better than the strange land of lawlessness we’re given instead.
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Still, The biggest crime of Fist Fight is that it manages to bring together an incredibly talented supporting cast without giving a single actor anything interesting to do. Dean Norris, Jillian Bell, Tracy Morgan, Christina Hendricks, Kumail Nanjiani and more appear in bit roles that feel cobbled together from the best improv moments on set. You could cut half of them from the film without impacting the story whatsoever, and you could replace the rest with no-name talent without risking a change in overall quality.
Even having written all this I still believe Fist Fight will eventually find an audience that embraces it like so many other surprisingly vulgar, poorly plotted comedies released in the last ten years. This is the perfect movie to ignore on a lazy weekend when you’re already distracted by games and timelines on your phone. It’s background noise with the occasional chuckle-worthy gag that just so happens to have a lot of recognizable people wasting time on screen. You can put it on, busy yourself for twenty minutes, and return without having missed a single moment of importance.
I guess what I’m saying is, Fist Fight is better than nothing, but only by a bit.