Charlie Day and Ice Cube are both highly successful, talented performers. Or, rather, they can be under the right conditions.
Day is working on the thirteenth season of the caustic, hilarious It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Cube’s rap career needs no introduction, to say nothing of his charming appeal in the Barbershop and Friday films. This makes it difficult to lay the blame for Fist Fight‘s stunning lack of laughs at their feet, or even those of the supporting cast, comprised of capable actors like Tracy Morgan, Jillian Bell, Dean Norris, and Christina Hendricks. Fist Fight is a dud from beginning to end, a “comedy” that made me laugh precisely one time. On top of this the film affirms destructive, ass-backwards ideas of masculinity and the education system, playing fast and loose with logic and the limits of human behavior, all while being completely humor-free. What the hell happened here?
It’s the last day of school at Roosevelt High School, a facility that is swiftly losing its teaching staff to budget cuts, as well as the student body, which is revolting against said staff worse than usual, seeing as it is also senior prank day (an event that never occurs on the last day before summer, I might add). Andy Campbell (Day) is a mousy English teacher, a so-called “nice guy” who has no respect from the young minds in whom he attempts to instill the “importance of language”, in one of the film’s many tone-deaf attempts at teacher-speak. Ron Strickland (Cube) is a no-bullshit history teacher who puts the fear of God into his students by means of a combination of constant swearing, scowling, and physical threats. Campbell’s wife (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) is very pregnant and ready to pop at any moment, with whom he shares a tween-age daughter who expects Campbell to perform in a talent show with her after school lets out.
Campbell is on the razor’s edge of unemployment, fearing that he will be pink-slipped at the slightest provocation, so he rats out on Strickland to the principal (Norris) after the hothead smashes up a kid’s desk in response to a prank. Strickland gets canned, prompting him to challenge Campbell to a post-school fist fight, an event Campbell is sure to lose given Strickland’s size and reputation for brutality, if the pedo-adjacent guidance counselor (Bell) and buffoon gym teacher (Morgan) are to be believed. We spend the rest of the film watching Campbell attempting to get out of the confrontation in roundabout, thuddingly stupid ways, all so that he learns how to stick up for himself and his wife will respect him again.
Like many sub-quality Hollywood comedies, the trailer gives away the few funny moments that exist in the film, leaving the rest of the runtime to lean on Day’s manic shrieking and Cube’s violent outbursts. The fact is that all of the characters in the film are complete jerks, eliciting little to no empathy that will make you want to watch them: Campbell is a cowardly weasel and Strickland is an unhinged sociopath, with their personalities being restricted to those traits alone. The supporting cast does little to stretch beyond what we’ve seen before – Bell makes an honest attempt to wring laughs out of the listless jokes about her drug use and hotness for minors – save for an underused Hendricks, who carries a butterfly knife and would like to see the titular fight end in a bloodbath. The cast’s boorishness wouldn’t be an issue if Fist Fight were funny which, alas, it is not.
Since Fist Fight is set on senior prank day, the teachers (mostly Campbell) fall victim to a variety of traps intended to milk physical comedy, but mostly come across as ludicrous and elaborate, particularly since director Richie Keen shoots them in the least interesting possible way. Keen has a background in television, including It’s Always Sunny, and it shows: the film is indifferently presented, with scenes of shot-reverse shot following one after the other, clearly as a vehicle for the actors to riff incessantly and for the editor to find the funniest lines (he failed). Adding to the parade of blandness is the undercurrent of commercialism, particularly for a certain fruit-named tech company, to which the film dedicates nearly ten minutes in a grossly obvious bid of product placement. The lone funny scene involves Day taking a back seat so that his onscreen daughter can rap a foul-mouthed Big Sean song as a “fuck you” to the school bully. It’s meant to spark Day’s own evolution into self-confidence, but instead shows how exhausting he is to watch in the rest of the movie.
The entire premise of Fist Fight is problematic, if you would pardon the overused term. It presents a short-tempered black man who is unable to be deterred from his desire to hurt a white man, the only solution to which is to sink to the aggressor’s level. The screenplay, written by Van Robichaux and Evan Susser, based on a story by them and New Girl‘s Max Greenfield, posits that this altercation proves to Campbell’s wife that he isn’t a loser, and to convince the school board that they need to better fund the district and hire back all the teachers, including the two men involved in the rumble. I can accept when a comedy lives in an entirely loony world where cartoonish violence is the solution to the world’s problems, but don’t try to couch it in the very real issues of America’s fragile education system and the underpaid people who attempt to make it work.
Fist Fight doesn’t have to change all that much to be a much better movie. If the filmmakers actually punished Campbell and Strickland for being the goons they are, we would have come to understand the toll a difficult economy can take on its working stiffs, and the limits to which they are pushed. Instead all of their problems are magically solved as result of violence and lack of communication. The issue at hand isn’t that Campbell has no spine, but that this movie has none.
Comedy | Warner Bros. Pictures