Fist Fight is marred by a very basic disconnect – it’s a movie with funny people that isn’t itself funny at all. So we are left to watch these funny people make increasingly desperate attempts to muster whatever comedic potential can be strained from this material, scene by scene, like an awkward episodic sketch program. Occasionally it’s amusing, most of the time it’s uncomfortable.
The basic setup is sort of preposterous on its own, even in spite of its one-note charm: two high school teachers escalate tensions to the point of a schoolyard brawl, tantamount to something one would expect the students to engage in. The resulting payoff is about as successful as one might expect when a sketch-level premise is extended to feature length: painful and prolonged, though mercifully sustained by a cast of talented people who know how to improvise, and who probably should’ve been tasked with on-the-spot rewrites.
Charlie Day and Ice Cube headline the enterprise – Day is the mild-mannered English teacher who can’t standup for himself, Cube the imposing no-nonsense History instructor who forcefully redefines the word “disciplinarian.” Day witnesses an incident in which Cube…overreaches…in his response to a student, and eventually caves to administrative pressure to rat on his colleague. Such is the labored setup for the eponymous fight, though there are needless layers of additional implications that the screenplay contorts itself into justification for its titular event – the school is failing, students have run wild, across-the-board department firings are imminent – as if there could be any logical rationalization to begin with. This material doesn’t need an explanation, it needs to triple down on its innate lunacy and create an environment in which a “Teacher Fight” (incidentally, the film’s original, more apt, title) fits right in.
To be fair, writers Van Robichaux and Evan Susser do attempt to create such an environment. Theirs is a world where teachers carry switchblades, self-medicate with crystal meth, and conduct long-standing sexual conquests of students’ moms. It’s the appropriate transgressive verve, eventually betrayed by the screenplay’s tendency to provide real-world context for its mayhem – Day needs to keep his job because his wife is expecting, while Cube’s agenda is to use the fight to expose the administrative ineptitude in the Los Angeles school system. The forced injection of earnest drama amid this subversive material is consistently uncomfortable; the do-gooder sequences feel disingenuous and the barbed comedy feels offensive.
Yet the film does manage to generate occasional laugh-out-loud moments, each invariably the result of its very talented cast. As ever, Day is able to ratchet his high-pitched energy to increasingly unexpected levels from one scene to the next. Cube is game to play his rough-and-tumble bully to the hilt. The supporting cast is full of great spice, from Jillian Bell’s drug-addled student chaser to Tracy Morgan’s willfully unsuccessful coach. Christina Hendricks, as the aforementioned blade-wielding teacher, could’ve been a real game-changer, but her role was clearly hacked to pieces in the editing room. As a result, Fist Fight is occasionally funny almost in spite of itself, the performances creating offbeat humor out of situations that would otherwise fall flat; the funniest moments almost don’t even fit squarely within the narrative, but exist on their own, free-standing respites from the rote march to the inevitable fight. Their unbridled commitment to the material demonstrates what might have been had the material committed to itself.