Fist Fight is like a John Hughes movie on drugs. It takes place all in one day, and there is a major transformation for the main character. There’s also a lot of R-rated content and seemingly inconsequential stakes.
A loose remake of Three O’Clock High, the entire premise of Fist Fight seems to be laughing at the possibility of Charlie Day getting knocked unconscious. Instead of pitting two students together, the film centers its titular brawl around two teachers. Strickland (Ice Cube) and Andy Campbell (Charlie Day) are ideologically opposed in their ideals. Campbell wants to motivate his students but sometimes gets stepped over in the process. Strickland views his role as simply to educate, and is often very intimidating. When Strickland chops up a student’s desk with an axe and Campbell doesn’t lie to the Principal, Strickland gets fired. Strickland then challenges Campbell to a fist fight on no uncertain terms.
As foils, Charlie Day and Ice Cube work well together. Strickland often stands still, with a menacing stare that inspires fear in his students and colleagues. “I’m going to fight you,” he says, and there’s the movie. It’s straightforwardness and silly, and yet terrifying. The justification that the movie later provides for why Strickland wants the fight doesn’t make sense, but it’s initial pronunciation is oh so satisfying.
Day, on the other hand, is like a tea kettle. He starts out friendly and a little too accommodating, and then whirls into a frenzy as the fight nears. Ideally, Strickland and Campbell would both reach the ideological center as the movie reaches its climax, but Campbell is the only one who changes. Thus, the movie becomes a story about one teacher having a complete nervous breakdown while the other bullies him there. Both actors are a joy to watch, but the characters don’t reach a satisfying conclusion as the film would like them to.
To support Day and Cube, Fist Fight creates an ensemble of remarkably talented, if B-list, comedic actors. Jillian Bell and Tracy Morgan (in his first film since the accident) share scenes with Charlie Day. Christina Hendricks joins Ice Cube in the opposition. And Kumail Nanjiani plays a security guard. All of them play archetypes. None of them hold any purpose other than to fill up time and space, but they all seem to be having a good time.
Although the movie takes place over the course of one school day, the sense of time gets messy along the way. Strickland spends a lot of time freaking out about the fight, but doesn’t seem to do much teaching throughout the day. Neither do any of the other teachers. Although this is somewhat necessary for dramatic purposes, there is never any real sense of time as most of the film is just teachers talking to each other.
The high school where Fist Fight takes place is like none that I have ever seen before. Not only are the last-day-of-school pranks completely insane, but the student population is diverse and well-proportioned. Still, much of the tension arises from the fact that the school is supposedly underfunded and most of the teachers are getting fired. Throughout, the film attempts to create some sort of political message. Fist Fight is arguing that public schools should be treated better, but it ignores most of the racial and economic factors in play.
This is emblematic of the tone as well. While some pretty crazy stuff happens within the narrative, much of the stylistic choices are a bit too safe. This is director Richie Keen’s first feature, and much of his TV-experience is showing. Sequences that could have inspiring creative choices just involve people standing around talking. Because the commentary and coherence are both somewhat minimal, the movie needs to fulfill its promise of going completely insane. It only goes half-way, and watching the whole world beat down on Charlie Day gets tedious after a little while.
However, the titular fight is a lot of fun. Although it is inevitably the pinnacle of toxic masculinity, the movie balances comedy and violence very well. If only the rest of the film was as exhilerating. In the end, Fist Fight is a lot like watching an actual Fist Fight. It might be exciting to an extent, but mostly it’s just frustrating and pointless.