In the new comedy Fist Fight, a just-okay sketch idea that somehow bumbled its way into feature production, Ice Cube plays Mr. Strickland, a history teacher at a high school that’s going down the tubes. On the last day of the year the annual senior pranks are in full flow, the administration is going through payroll with butcher knives and he’s stuck trying to teach kids about the Civil War with a crappy VHS player. Finally pushed over the edge, Strickland goes for a student’s desk with a fireaxe and lands himself in front of the harried, impatient principal (Breaking Bad‘s Dean Morris), with Charlie Day’s pushover Mr. Campbell as witness. Buckling under the pressure and anxious about job security, Campbell rats out his colleague, who doesn’t take the betrayal and firing well, challenging the Benedict Arnold to an old-fashioned brawl in the school car park at the end of the day.
Pushed for motivation behind the projected ass-beating, Strickland rails against participation trophy culture and the faculty’s acceptance of gradually diminishing standards. Frustrated and out of fucks, and championing a philosophy of “no free periods”, he insists that someone, anyone, be held accountable for their actions. But what about Fist Fight, which is the studio comedy equivalent of one long free period? Who will be held accountable for this?
Fist Fight is a movie built entirely around the conceit that Ice Cube glowering at the camera is hilarious. The man is asked to glower a lot. He mashes his eyebrows and cocks his head and spends a lot of time pointing at people and telling them what he’s going to do to them, principally the weedy, repressed Campbell, who reacts to the threats with Day’s trademark stammering, high-pitched bafflement. The back-and-forth routine gets recycled a few times. Director Richie Keen, who has worked with Day on It’s Always Sunny, and screenwriters Van Robichaux and Evan Susser, are all first-timers, and it shows in the thinness of the material.
This movie has coasting C-student written all over it. Other faculty members are played by game performers but aren’t challenged to do anything surprising. 22 Jump Street‘s Jillian Bell is a sex-obsessed teacher who says outrageous things. Silicon Valley‘s Kumail Nanjiana, as the campus security guard, does that clipped delivery he’s good at. Tracy Morgan, fun to see on the big screen and obviously riffing a fair bit, gets some very Morgan-ish outbursts as the failing football coach. Dean Norris glares and shouts. Sticking to the teachers-are-psycho gags, we have Christina Hendricks passing Strickland a switch blade and telling him to slice Campbell’s face straight down the middle. Pause for reaction. “Damn that bitch is crazy!”
The 15 certificate allows a more liberal use of profanity than most studio fodder, concentrated on Strickland’s daughter’s talent show rendition of Big Sean’s “I Don’t Fuck With You”, which is sort of funny in a bracing way. But everything else is safe and predictable. Kids mow a big dick shape on the football field, with chalk lines for cum streaks. Someone else draws a dick on a whiteboard. A kid jerks off in a bathroom stall and doesn’t stop when Campbell catches him. People give other people the middle finger. Eventually, obviously, Campbell learns lessons about how to stand up for himself and his family, the whole experience unfolding with the clockwork whatever of a bland lesson plan. Conor Smyth