Although “Fist Fight,” a comedy about a beef between two feuding high school teachers, culminates in the promised slugfest, evidence would suggest that it’s the creators of this rope-a-dopey farce who took too many blows to the head.
The jokes (by screenwriters Van Robichaux and Evan Susser) have all the wit of a punch-drunk palooka. And the direction by Richie Keen (“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) is a lead-footed affair. The slapsticky, sight-gag-heavy yuck-fest, which is filled with the kind of phallic humor you may have sniggered at when you were 16, floats like a dead butterfly, and stings like a B-movie.
The two pugilists in question are Mr. Campbell (Charlie Day), a whiny English teacher, and Mr. Strickland (Ice Cube), a no-nonsense history teacher who is a more unhinged version of “Lean on Me’s” baseball-bat-toting Joe Clark. When Strickland loses his cool in front of his class, taking a fireman’s ax to a misbehaving student’s desk, Campbell rats on him to the principal (Dean Norris), leading to Strickland’s threat of an after-school showdown. Much of the film consists of Campbell’s ineffectual efforts to forestall the inevitable, in a grown-up evocation of the 1987 comedy “Three O’Clock High” (a far better film about a wuss trying to avoid a beatdown by a schoolyard bully).
These efforts include seeking the protection of the nerdy campus security guard (Kumail Nanjiani) and framing Strickland by planting drugs in his bag, a plan that is hatched in consultation with the school’s harebrained athletic coach (Tracy Morgan), who jokes about having sex with parents, and a creepy faculty colleague (Jillian Bell), who jokes about having sex with students – not to mention using meth. That’s some talented supporting cast there, but all three actors are wasted in roles that are, in essence, cartoons.
While “Fist Fight” tries to evince the same brand of gleeful depravity of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” – a mix of the jaunty and the jaundiced that also stars Day – the film only ever manages to achieve a sour mood of dyspeptic irritation with the status quo. There are lots of jokes about the dysfunction of the public education system – check it out, Betsy DeVos – but mostly its moral is about winning at any cost.
Some might say that’s a distinctly Trumpian worldview, an argument that may be buttressed by the fact that one of the film’s executive producers is our new secretary of the treasury, Steve Mnuchin.
Cast: Charlie Day, Ice Cube, Tracy Morgan, Jillian Bell, Kumail Nanjiani
Director: Richie Keen
Rated R (crude language throughout, sexual humor, drug use, nudity and comic violence)