Fist Fight—Charlie Day is Andy Campbell, a milquetoast English teacher at an underfunded, underachieving, metal-detector-enclosed high school. Ice Cube is Strickland, a tough history teacher. It’s the last day of school, the odious, arrogant students are playing outrageous pranks, and the teachers are re-interviewing for their jobs in the face of layoffs. Things are tense.
Andy witnesses Strickland violently lose it front of his class, and faced with the prospect of losing his job if he doesn’t, he “rats out” Strickland to the principal. On the familiar grounds that “snitches get stitches,” Strickland then challenges Andy to the title combat after school.
The rest of this broad, crude, foul-mouthed comedy, directed by Richie Keen from a script by Van Robichaux and Evan Susser, involves Andy frantically resorting to ever more dishonorable and humiliating tactics in an attempt to avoid this fight. In outline, the plot is very much like that of 1987’s Three O’Clock High, except featuring teachers instead of students. Ultimately, of course, in the grand tradition of movies, Andy and Strickland must face off—if they didn’t, the title would be a cheat.
It’s an indefensibly stupid, ill-conceived, mostly unfunny, often offensive movie. So of course, I feel compelled to defend it a little. A very, very little.
First of all, the actors are good. Day, a veteran nitwit from the Horrible Bosses movies and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, fearlessly plays shamelessness. He isn’t the customary cinematic comical coward, like Bob Hope or Woody Allen, making his avoidance of peril into a self-deprecating dignity—he’s palpably willing to abase himself, and the effect is painful, verging at times on poignancy.
Tracy Morgan brings his querulous, imploring tones to the part of the perennially losing football coach, and he’s pretty funny. Jillian Bell is even funnier as a guidance counselor who seems desperately in need of guidance herself. Only Christina Hendricks, as a possibly psychotic French teacher, seems wasted, although I suppose no footage which features Christina Hendricks walking down the hallway in a form-fitting black dress can be considered a total waste.
Ice Cube is always effortlessly commanding, even in a role like this, which aside from being one-note is saddled with a major idiocy at its core. The moviemakers try to sell us on the idea that Strickland’s rage is because he’s fed up with the disrespect of students and the indifference of his colleagues, and that he’s insisting on going through with his challenge to Andy on the grounds that a fight between two teachers will somehow showcase the problems faced by those in their profession.
This is ludicrous, certainly, but it may point to the reason why, as terrible as Fist Fight is, the movie can’t be called dull. It draws a certain degree of dramatic potency from the near-impossible situation in which public school teachers in poorer districts find themselves—constant frustration if they care about their jobs and their students, soulless defeat if they give up. The dumb fight-between-teachers plot, even though it was probably the inspiration for the picture, is also a weight around its neck. It’s possible to see how, with the same cast and setting, something could have been made that was at least equally funny but genuinely trenchant.