Fist Fight: Crude, Vulgar, But Sporadically Funny

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fist fight
Editor’s Note: Fist Fight opens in wide theatrical release today, February 17, 2017.

Dueling, contradictory visions of masculinity, one supposedly soft, weak, and feminized (if not feminine), the other, hard, anger incarnate, violent, lie at the center of Fist Fight, a crude, vulgar, sporadically funny comedy directed by Richie Keen from a screenplay credited to Van Robichaux and Evan Susser (Robichaux and Susser share a story credit with Max Greenfield). Fist Fight literally pits a beta male, Andy Campbell (Charlie Day), against an alpha male, Ron Strickland (the perpetually furrowed-brow Ice Cube [O’Shea Jackson Sr.]). Also, two men enter a ring – or the equivalent thereof (i.e., a high-school parking lot) – and throw down in front of an inappropriately supportive audience, if only to avoid copping out on the title’s explicit promise (aka “Three O’Clock High with Teachers”). Intentionally or not, Fist Fight is also about race and with the current occupant of the White House as the standard bearer for white nationalism/supremacy, Fist Fight has a problematic relationship with race – or more specifically racial stereotypes and how they play into class divisions and our educational system (maybe).

The “will-they or won’t they” premise doesn’t lack for potential, but even at 90-minutes, Fist Fight feels stretched thin to a nearly unbearable degree.

fist fightThose racial stereotypes are right there, out in the open, from Fist Fight’s opening scenes of Campbell, afraid of losing his job to budget cutbacks, mollifying the fearsome, coffee-deprived Strickland in the teacher’s lounge by helping the latter with an Espresso machine. Later, as Campbell navigates pep talks and/or run-ins with the school’s wildly inappropriate guidance counselor, Holly (Jillian Bell), the head football coach, Freddie Coward (Tracy Morgan), a fiery, Campbell-hating teacher, Miss Monet (Christina Hendricks), his extremely pregnant wife, Maggie (JoAnna Garcia Swisher), their daughter, Ally (Alexa Nisenson), and a father-daughter talent counselor, he barely has time to actually teach anything. Not that his students – or any students for that matter – want to learn anything. It’s the last day of school before summer. It’s also senior prank day.

After Strickland pulls a wandering Campbell into his classroom to help with badly dated AV equipment, Campbell’s day goes from tolerable to potentially life-threatening when he points the finger at Strickland for the latter’s over-eager use of an ax to destroy a prankster’s desk. Not surprisingly, Strickland loses his job, but rather than accept responsibility for his actions and be accountable like a normal human being, he challenges Campbell to an afterschool fist fight at three o’clock. Despite trying to talk his way out of the fight (bad) or later, in not-so-quiet desperation, trying to frame a fired, but still working Strickland for a crime, the fight moves closer to reality. Campbell’s not helped by police dispatchers who laugh at his predicament or the students who turn his impending beatdown into a viral video (because why not). Campbell also has a sit-down with the school’s principal, Richard Tyler (Dean Norris), in the afternoon. At stake? His future as a teacher at the school.

Fist Fight feints several times in the general direction of the failed, underfunded educational system, but it also suggests, intentionally or not, that race will divide presumably natural allies (i.e., united by class) and force them to scrap for whatever resources remain after political and economic elites have raided state and federal treasuries.

The “will-they or won’t they” premise (they will, in case you’re wondering) doesn’t lack for potential, but even at 90-minutes, Fist Fight feels stretched thin to a nearly unbearable degree. Fault, of course, lies with a threadbare script that leans heavily on Day’s man-in-a-panic shtick and Ice Cube’s rage-in-a-bottle routine. Both can be funny, Day as the comedian, Ice Cube as the straight man, but in small, measured doses, not an entire film’s worth of the same shtick, the same routine over and over (and over) again, to unsurprisingly diminishing returns. The script also relies on “shock” jokes meant to elicit laughs from their untimely nature or inapt context (e.g., teachers doing meth, teachers ogling high-school jocks, teachers suggesting one teacher shiv another teacher), but like everything else in Fist Fight, the jokes fall flatter each time they make an appearance. It’s a shame, not to mention a waste, of raw comedic talent. Then again, it’s rare for even comedies crammed with A-level talent to work consistently across their respective running times.

It doesn’t help, of course, that pitting men of different races (a social construct, sure, but not when it informs, guides, and directs social behavior), one from a privileged white background, and the other from a historically non-privileged African-American one, against each other. Fist Fight feints several times in the general direction of the failed, underfunded educational system, but it also suggests, intentionally or not, that race will divide presumably natural allies (i.e., united by class) and force them to scrap for whatever resources remain after political and economic elites have raided state and federal treasuries. It’s a surprisingly dismal, discouraging undercurrent for a made-in-Hollywood comedy, but it also reflects our current, nightmarish reality.

5.0 Awesome

With jokes of diminishing returns, the “will-they or won’t they” premise of Fist Fight doesn’t lack for potential, but even at 90 minutes, it's stretched thin to a nearly unbearable degree.

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About Author

Mel Valentin hails from the great state of New Jersey. After attending New York University as an undergrad (politics and economics double major, religious studies minor) and grad school (law), he relocated from the East Coast to San Francisco, California, where he's been ever since. Since Mel began writing about film nine years ago, he's written more than 1,600 reviews and articles. He's a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society.