Director: Richie Keen
Cast: Charlie Day, Ice Cube, Tracy Morgan, Jillian Bell, Dean Norris, Christina Hendricks, Kumail Nanjiani, JoAnna Garcia Swisher, Alexa Nisenson, Dennis Haysbert
MPAA Rating: (for language throughout, sexual content/nudity and drug material)
Running Time: 1:31
Release Date: 2/17/17
Review by Mark Dujsik | February 16, 2017
There's the potential for a broad, thoughtless comedy with Fist Fight. The movie gets the first part right. The jokes are crude and vulgar, depend on people behaving outlandishly in awkward situations, and culminate in a no-holds-barred brawl that would leave ordinary humans with broken bones, internal bleeding, and probably some organ damage. It basically becomes a live-action cartoon by the end, and again, that's likely the correct approach for material such as this.
The problem is that Van Robichaux and Evan Susser's screenplay thinks it has a few important things to say. These include commentaries on the state of public education in the United States, a trend of shirking responsibility for one's actions, and what it means to stand up for what one believes. It's not a lesson movie disguised as a comedy, though. It's a comedy that believes it can get a few bonus moral and political points by cramming in generalized sentiments between its jokes.
Needless to say, it fails utterly in that regard. The movie also ends up being hypocritical and wrong-headed in these concerns, but that's what happens when a movie attempts to exceed its limitations without putting much or any thought into what it's trying to say.
The premise is simple: Two public high school teachers are going to have a fight in the parking lot after school. Andy Campbell (Charlie Day), a meek English teacher, doesn't want to fight. Mr. Strickland (Ice Cube), an unconventional—to say the least—history teacher, does. The disagreement comes when Campbell witnesses Strickland take an axe to the desk of a student who pulled an innocent prank.
The principal (Dean Norris) threatens Campbell's job in the midst of harsh faculty cuts, so Campbell "snitches" on Strickland. The history teacher challenges him to a fight—first one to knock the other unconscious wins.
This setup works for a bit, because it's primarily about the humor in the vast difference between the two, inevitable combatants' personalities. The key is that Strickland is more or less insane. There is nothing rational about his thinking. He yells at students in a way that cannot be taken as anything but a threat. He has garnered the fear of students and his fellow faculty members alike. There are rumors about his past, from being a gang enforcer to being a former military operative who killed Saddam Hussein's sons. All of them seem credible.
Cube, of course, is an actor who operates within a certain range, but he performs within that range quite well. In this case, he's quite funny as a stone-faced hard-ass who's every gaze comes across as a challenge. His character is extreme, but Cube wisely downplays it.
His comic performance might be the most effective one here simply because it serves as a juxtaposition to what everyone else is doing. Day is his typical hyperactive self. When it works, it works. When it doesn't, it feels as if he's overcompensating for the weak, routine material that comes with his character—a scared guy who's desperate to get out of the fight, keep his job, and maintain his family obligations (His daughter, played by Alexa Nisenson, has a talent show later in the day, and his pregnant wife, played by JoAnna Garcia Swisher, is three day past her due date—one guess as to how the movie's climax plays out in between the fight sequence).
Tracy Morgan plays the school's situationally unaware gym teacher, and he gets a few good bits. The school's guidance counselor, played by Jillian Bell, is a lawsuit waiting to happen, as she discusses the line between the consensual seduction of a male student and a criminal offense. It's uncomfortable in a way that stops being amusing almost immediately. Christina Hendricks plays the French teacher who wants Strickland to kill Campbell, because she walks in on him trying to stop a student from masturbating in the public bathroom. No, this isn't the only case of the screenplay taking a throwaway gag, expanding it, and then running both into the ground.
The movie becomes repetitive pretty quickly, and while it would be tempting to dismiss the affair merely as a mixed bag of running jokes and performances, that would mean ignoring the ways Fist Fight undermines its central purpose through unearned lecturing. Strickland, as it turns out, isn't just some off-the-rails guy who has been pushed too far. He wants to send a message to the country about the state of public education and how people don't take responsibility for the actions anymore. In case the movie's hypocrisy isn't clear yet, he probably could have started by owning up to charging at a student with an axe—or not doing it in the first place.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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