By default, the hyper aggressive high school comedy “Fist Fight” is an argument against bullying, since the sheer force of its crude, empty shenanigans is more likely to make you cower than laugh. Ostensibly built around the lopsided gag of a mousy English teacher (Charlie Day) forced into an after-school scrap with a menacing colleague (Ice Cube) — at best the B story in any standard-issue classroom sitcom — it’s mostly another nail in the coffin of R-rated outrageousness and ad-libbed sloppiness.
Envelope-pushing has rarely seemed so pencil-pushing, while the “F” bomb is as numbingly deployed as “like” is in the speech of bored teenagers.
At times, you’re tempted to believe Ice Cube just filmed a bunch of takes of him giving a death glare or threatening someone off-camera and then let anyone build whatever movie they wanted around him. Other times, you wonder if Charlie Day’s contract should include a rider that caps the number of times he screams lines at an annoying fever-pitch. That Ice Cube‘s authoritatively mean presence and Day’s comically scratchy whine are singular gifts you rapidly grow tired of is just one of the joy-sapping hallmarks in this freshman feature debut from TV director Richie Keen.
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Day plays Andy Campbell, a nervous teacher who arrives on the last day of class at his underfunded, poorly-run high school to find the annual senior prank tradition in full swing: toilet paper everywhere, mattress rides down the stairs, porn playing in the trophy case, and a horse on meth roaming the halls. But it’s the kind of chaos that suggests the students have always run things, and with budget cuts ensuring a fair number of teachers will get pink slips that day, all Andy can think about — with a wife (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) about to give birth — is making his case later for not getting fired.
Like nearly everyone, adult and teenager, at Roosevelt High School, Andy is scared by fearsome history teacher Mr. Strickland (Ice Cube), first seen brandishing a bat à la “Lean On Me,” and later, in his classroom, a fire axe, which he applies to an offending student’s desk after being subjected to a prank. Andy witnesses this, and rats Strickland out to the principal (Dean Norris) as a job-saving measure, which incurs the erstwhile schoolyard challenge from the snarling Strickland: 3 p.m., outside, and stitches for snitches.
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It’s impossible to convey how thoroughly unsuspenseful this premise is since Andy is unlikeable enough to deserve such a comeuppance, and his options for avoiding this showdown are numerous, starting with simply going home. The real story in Van Robichaux and Evan Susser’s burp of a screenplay is the outdated act-like-a-man vibe that drives the testosterone-slathered comedy, with milquetoast Andy’s avoidance schemes a never-ending source of stale humiliation jokes and jags of ear-piercing yelling. (Seriously, whatever happened to deadpan reactions? Silent double takes?)
Ice Cube’s Strickland, meanwhile, starts out a tantalizingly tough figure — righteous about fixing a broken school but borderline psychotic — until the fight-clock gimmick turns him into a cartoon adversary.
That leaves, as usual, supporting players to fill in, and “Fist Fight” does a talented cast no favors. Christina Hendricks is wasted in an unfunny one-note character (the prissy teacher with a sadistic side). It’s comforting to see Tracy Morgan back in the game as a long-suffering coach, but after a requisite wisecrack about impregnation, he’s mysteriously uninspired.
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“22 Jump Street” scene-stealer Jillian Bell’s guidance counselor is another of the actress’s patented whack jobs — a tweaker who lusts for her students — but it’s a forced bit more expectedly distasteful than genuinely silly. Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley”), meanwhile, shows up as a school security guard for two scenes, and the desire to follow him home, where his bemused character’s life is surely more funny, is strong.
“Fist Fight” is so ineptly assembled, shoddy-looking and devoid of comic tension or creative lunacy — like a movie comprised of outtakes — that you half-expect the filmmakers not even to deliver a fist fight. (That they do, for a big crowd and news cameras, but only after it becomes a pointless face-off emotionally for Andy or Strickland.) That ultimate skirmish lends the movie a weird aura of give-the-people-what-they-what bloodsport, and toxic masculinity for toxic masculinity’s sake.
There’s the flimsiest attempt to justify it for one character’s ulterior purposes as an example to the world of how degraded the public-school system has become, but it carries about as much issue resonance here as the term “organic” does on a box of chocolate cookies. Even so, scarfing down those cookies is infinitely more satisfying than anything in “Fist Fight.”
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