‘Fist Fight’ is yet another studio comedy that has a decent premise, a pair of strong leads, a handful of hilarious supporting players, and then a plot that is essentially filler. It has some laughs, but they all come in the margins and in isolation.
Any time the script takes over, the movie is a slog. Whenever the funny people hired to improve the script get a chance to toss in some chuckles, it’s fun. It scores enough laughs to feel like a successful comedy without ever actually playing as a satisfying movie.
The story takes place in a rundown public high school on senior prank day, when all sorts of wackiness ensues. Budget cuts have teachers terrified of getting fired. Between that and the pranks, it’s a stressful time to be a teacher. Charlie Day is on straight man duty (and presumably in a role that Jason Bateman turned down at some point) as Andy, an English teacher with financial pressures, job pressures and marriage pressures. He needs to stand up and be a M-A-N, man. Ice Cube plays Strickland, the hard-ass history teacher who doesn’t take crap on prank day. When one kid tries to prank him anyway, he lashes out with an axe. Fun fact: You’re not supposed to do that as a teacher, so he’s immediately considered for termination. When Andy rats him out to save his own job, Strickland challenges him to a fight at 3 PM. Just like that cultish ’80s classic ‘Three O’Clock High’, that means Andy will be paranoid all day and must solve all his problems in time to have a big fight and learn some big life lessons. Snooze.
The concept of teachers getting into a fight like kids is amusing, and Charlie Day and Ice Cube are funny performers. Unfortunately, they’re both stuck in pretty tiresome roles. Day tries to cram in some of the manic insanity that he brings to ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’, but is mostly relegated to playing straight man to everyone else. Ice Cube essentially plays the same one-note screaming badass from his role in the ‘Jump Street’ movies and proves how quickly that single note runs out of steam.
All the convoluted life problems that Andy needs to overcome to become a better person are dull and clichéd. (Get ready for another wacky talent show from a disinterested dad!) The story always seems to slow ‘Fist Fight’ down, especially in the inevitable “Sad Music + Lesson Learning = Drama” sections of the third act. The vague commentary about the hellish underfunded public school system is tacked-on and pointless, despite being relevant. A smarter movie could have used this material for satiric means, but ‘Fist Fight’ sure ain’t that movie.
Fortunately, ‘It’s Always Sunny’ veteran director Richie Keen stacks his supporting cast with comedy ringers to improvise some extra laughs. Tracy Morgan puts on the Tracy Morgan show as a coach who led his team to record losses, and he’s always a pleasure to watch go nuts. Kumail Nanjiani gets more out of a token lazy security guard role than should be possible. Christina Hendricks is amusingly nuts as a knife-wielding supporter of Ice Cube’s teacher with ‘tude. And the perpetually underrated Jillian Bell is hysterical as a guidance counsellor with a love of meth and barely legal boys. Since Keen can plop these talents into nearly any scene for extra gags, it helps raise the laugh count to respectable levels, and both Day and Cube play off them all well.
The problem with these brands of studio comedies is that the executives just don’t trust or respect the art form. They buy clever pitches and water them down with the most pedestrian writing-by-numbers scripts, burdened with nauseatingly obvious emotional acts that are more manipulative than meaningful. Once a frustratingly conventional structure is in place, they let comedians strap on as many jokes as possible. It makes for passable diversions, but also ensures that mainstream comedies are completely pedestrian movies without any merit or content.
If you’re stuck on a plane and like Charlie Day or Ice Cube, ‘Fist Fight’ is a decent enough way to kill some flight time. Beyond that, it’s not really worth your time.