At one point during Fist Fight, the new comedy starring Ice Cube and Charlie Day, I could only think of Step Brothers, an inverted Bugsy Malone that casts adults as childish characters and stands up as Adam McKay’s masterpiece. Although there’s plenty of comic mileage in adults acting like kids, Fist Fight is sadly not a patch on those farcical heights.
The film takes place at Roosevelt High School, an inner city school where budget cuts have left the entire faculty fearing for their jobs, and also fearing the students’ designated Senior Pranks Day on the last day of term. As English teacher Mr. Campbell (Day) observes, the pranks don’t really seem like pranks – mostly, they involve criminal damage and horse-kidnapping.
History teacher Mr. Strickland (Cube) is having none of it and early on in a stressful day, he loses his temper in the classroom. To save his own skin, Campbell snitches on Strickland and gets him fired. Determined to teach him and his students that actions have consequences, Strickland challenges his wimpy colleague to a fight in the car park at 3 o’clock. Until then, Campbell tries everything he can to weasel out of what will surely be a devastating after-school beatdown, getting little to no help from his faculty friends (Jillian Bell and Tracy Morgan) along the way.
Director Richie Keen and writers Van Robichaux and Evan Susser aim to make a rude, subversive update to the 1987 cult teen classic Three O’Clock High, but it turns out to be misconceived on several levels. Take the pranks, for instance. They’re way over-the-top from the very beginning, to the point where you feel like the film might eventually become about beating the shit out of these kids instead.
But the film makes the public education system its target instead, and it truly doesn’t have any meaningful answers for the flaws it half-heartedly blames for the carnage. Dean Norris’ principal and Dennis Haysbert’s superintendent don’t back the teachers up against the unruly students, but apparently the answer to that is for one teacher to fight a colleague so that the world will see it (if I never see a mainstream Hollywood comedy with a viral video sub-plot again, it will be too goddamn soon), and things will finally change. This rationale makes absolutely no sense when Strickland suggests it, but you still like him more than Campbell, who goes way beyond the pale in trying to escape his appointment with an arse-whupping.
Depressingly, despite the extremity of his actions, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before in this sort of daft, flat studio comedy, complete with a Chekov’s pregnant belly on Campbell’s endlessly supportive and oblivious wife (JoAnn Garcia Swisher). All in all, the dialogue is too weak for the film to support anything other than sight gags – a sequence which visualises the various different schoolyard rumours about Strickland’s life before teaching gives the only genuine belly laugh in the film’s running time.
For their part, at least the stars aren’t phoning it in. Charlie Day brings his formidable comic range to bear on a character that can be Arnold Rimmer one minute and Daffy Duck the next. Meanwhile, even though Ice Cube may be typecast as the angry black tough guy that he criticises from his very first scene in the much better Jump Street movies, he’s watchable even when his character is talking a load of macho nonsense.
As for the supporting cast, they’re mostly left playing one note characters and their success very much depends on how much you like that one note. On one hand, Kumail Nanjiani turns in yet another scene-stealing deadpan turn and Dean ‘ASAC Schrader’ Norris is great as the principal who is being followed around by a mariachi band as part of Prank Day.
On the other hand, Christina Hendricks is wasted as a French teacher who’s fixated on stabbing Campbell and although it’s great to see Tracy Morgan back on screen after his accident, this project isn’t up to giving him the triumphant return he deserves. The less said about Jillian Bell’s pervy student counsellor the better, but her character is just one of the problems in a film that tries to wring comedy out of unemployed teachers, students left behind and drugs in schools, and then posits violence as the answer to all of them.
Fist Fight presents violence as the cause of and solution to a number of problems in the American public education system, but lacks both the satirical bite and the laughs per minute required to carry it off. The cast muddles on manfully and the film occasionally gets off a good sight gag, but frankly, it’s really not funny enough to work for longer than a few short bursts. Overall, it’s the kind of broad, misconceived studio comedy that immediately shows its age, rather than acting it.
Fist Fight is in UK cinemas now.