In the new Ice Cube/Charlie Day comedy Fist Fight, two high school teachers are finally pushed past their breaking points on the last day of the school year. One of them, Mr. Strickland (Cube), attacks a student who keeps pranking him, or, more accurately, he takes an axe to that student’s desk. The other one, Mr. Campbell (Day), happens to witness this incident, and later rats Strickland out to the principle. Snitches, as they say, get stitches. Strickland challenges Campbell to a fight to take place at the end of the school day.
But, but, but…Campbell has a very pregnant wife (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) and young daughter to support. The principle said either snitch or lose his job. He had no choice.
Strickland doesn’t care. You snitch, your get your ass whooped. Honor must be satisfied.
But, but, but…Campbell has never fought before in his life. He doesn’t stand a chance! And, honestly, what kind of grown man challenges another grown man to a fight these days?
So what? They need to set an example for the students at the school, and Day taking his beating will teach the students a lesson about being held accountable for your actions, or so Strickland argues.
And that’s roughly how Fist Fight proceeds, with Day as the whimpering nice guy first trying to talk his way out of the conflict for the few hours he has left before resorting to complicated schemes and Cube the immovable object with a permanent scowl. Jillian Bell, Tracy Morgan, Kumail Nanjiani, Christina Hendricks and others pepper the edges of the story with improv Olympics and batty moments, but this is Ice Cube and Charlie Day’s movie from beginning to end.
Ice Cube basically plays the same Ice Cube character he always does, either here or in Ride Along or the 21 Jump Street movies. Day (whose signature screeching is an acquired taste) plays Campbell like a slightly more neutered version of his It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia character, making it clear that this bizarre fist fight ordeal will likely help him become a more assertive and masculine person. In other word, he pretty much has the same arc as Will Ferrell in Daddy’s Home, a film Fist Fight resembles on a couple of occasions (e.g., a subplot about bullying resolves itself via an explosion of profanity).
During a clever montage in the film’s first third, we witness recreations of all the crazy stories teachers, students and even janitors have heard about Strickland, thus making him that one mysterious teacher at school who everyone fears, but no one really knows. Did he used to be in a gang? Was he once a cop? Is he actually a piano virtuoso with a crazy eye? No one knows, and I convinced myself Fist Fight would eventually reveal the answer, contextualize Strickland’s unending anger, yet commendable devotion to his students in such a way that we could understand him as a human being and not just assume Strickland’s only the way he is because Ice Cube wanted to look like a badass.
But that’s not the kind movie this is. Other than Campbell, these are all cartoon characters (albeit occasionally amusing cartoon characters), nothing more. The script eventually tries to make some kind of statement on the state of the public school system. There is a hard-to-swallow turn where Strickland argues they need to have this fist fight to show the School Board how insane all of the budget cuts have made them. And Campbell does have an actual pronounced character arc.
Not that anyone who pays to see Fist Fight will likely care about any of that. They’ll just want to see tough guy Ice Cube beating up nerdy Charlie Day, and on that end the film certainly delivers.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Fist Fight is the latest in the ongoing run of mid-tier, R-Rated American comedies with thin scripts, unremarkable direction and side characters raining down clearly improvised one-liners. However, somewhat against my better judgement I have a real soft spot for these kinds of movies, at least when they’re done well. On the absolute low end, you have regrettable fare like Why Him? and Dirty Grandpa; on the high end there’s 22 Jump Street. Fist Fight likely falls somewhere in the middle or lower half, destined to be rightly ignored by those who can’t stand these kinds of movies but likely discovered on home video months from now by people who will think, “Huh. That wasn’t terrible. I laughed a couple of times.” High praise, indeed, but, hey, it did actually make me laugh a couple of times.