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.
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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)