Film Review – Fist Fight
Having written for The MacGuffin for over 4 years now (!), I can attest that sometimes, just SOMEtimes, you want to be assigned a brainless piece of January/February fluff. As rewarding an experience as it is to see and write think pieces for Oscar contenders such as Manchester By The Sea or Toni Erdmann, a high-concept/low-budget comedy is, to me, a welcome, occasional respite. Imagine my excitement, then, when I saw the screamy, intermittently funny trailer for Fist Fight, starring Ice Cube and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia‘s Charlie Day. “Good or bad, this review is gonna be a breeze,” I naively thought. But when your movie is this patly mediocre, that minimum word count just gets further and further away from you.
In what appears to be director Richie Keen‘s feature film debut, Fist Fight stars Andy Campbell (Day) as a put-upon high school English teacher desperate to hold onto his job amidst substantial budget cuts. It is the last day of school and the newest crop of seniors unleash prank after elaborate prank on the staff, as is apparently tradition. (Not to get too far ahead of myself but the sheer banality of these gags has me struggling to remember all but one fairly inspired bit.) History teacher and mean-mugger, Mr. Strickland (Ice Cube), takes offense to a particularly brutish gag, prompting him to brandish an axe and chop a student’s desk down to kindling. Ya know, like one does.
Hoping to use this as leverage in securing his own job, Mr. Campbell is quick to rat Strickland out to Principal Tyler (Dean Norris, Breaking Bad). This, naturally, prompts Strickland to challenge Campbell to a parking lot fist fight once the final bell rings.
The makings for an in-and-out (the runtime is a mere 91 minutes) goof-em-up are all there in its simple premise, yet a glaring amount of the gags fall flat here. I know some find Charlie Day’s manic presence exhausting, but I’ve always appreciated his ability to charm you almost in spite of himself. It’s hard to say how much pull (if any) writers Van Robichaux and Evan Susser had in way of casting, but it seems woefully misguided to waste Day’s energy in a largely straight man role. Cube, as Strickland, fares marginally better but we’ve seen him do this bigger and better in the Jump Street franchise.
Keen is keen enough (I’m so sorry) to round out his cast with some heavy-hitters in the comedy world. Tracy Morgan lands some laughs as lackadaisical Coach Crawford, and Kumail Nanjiani‘s weary eyed security guard scores a few zingers. More troublesome is the running “gag” involving Holly (Jillian Bell, Workaholics), a fellow teacher with a taste for meth and underage students. Had the movie had anything to say about this rather than “pretty messed up, huh?” it might have sat with me a little better, but as is, it made me queasy.
Am I expecting too much out of my February comedies? Have I fully completed my transition into MacGuffin’s in-house curmudgeon? I don’t think so. The basics are there, after all. A hooky premise, diverse and funny cast. A cursory IMDB search informs me Keen regularly directs an assortment of respected and hilarious TV shows. Perhaps he works best at a 22 minute clip.