THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
There is a very funny teen comedy from 1987 called Three O'Clock High, about a nerd who gets challenged to an after-school brawl by the class bully. He then spends the entire day trying to get out of it. Fist Fight is, for all intents and purposes, a remake of that movie, except that in this instance it's the teachers who are fighting, rather than the students.
Charlie Day plays Andy Campbell, one of the English teachers at a bad Georgia high school. It's the last day of the year, and the students are perpetually pranking the faculty. All the adults are already on edge. Andy is a mild-mannered guy who tries to do the right thing. So when Mr. Strickland (Ice Cube), the mean and angry history teacher, smashes a pupil's desk in a fit of rage, Andy reports him to the principal. Strickland is fired – and pissed. He tells Andy that they are going to meet in the parking lot at the end of the day and fight until one of them is unconscious. This strikes fear into the heart of the meek teacher, leading to a series of attempts to figure out how to avoid the confrontation.
Fist Fight has a really terrific ensemble cast. Charlie Day is one of those actors who's exceptionally good at playing stammering, nervous, neurotic characters. That skill gets quite a workout here. His comic desperation provides some genuine laughs. Ice Cube, meanwhile, plays his signature intensity for humor, much as he did in 21 Jump Street and its sequel. Cube is such a strong, intimidating presence onscreen. To his credit, he knows how to use that gift in both dramatic and comedic ways. The interactions between the two men, with their vastly different styles, is effective.
The supporting cast, meanwhile, includes the hilarious Jillian Bell as the world's most inappropriate guidance counselor, Tracy Morgan as a slightly clueless coach, Christina Hendricks as a voluptuous teacher with a thirst for violence, and Kumail Nanjiani (a guy who never fails to make me giggle) as a not-entirely-committed security guard. There's no doubt that they're all doing fine work here.
Fist Fight certainly has some laughs courtesy of that cast, and it admirably doesn't cop out at the end, as one might expect it would. The two men really do fight in one doozy of a slug-fest. Thankfully, Strickland is never softened, either. There's no lame explanation for why he's an unrelenting hothead. That's just who he is. Saying this is a message movie would be overstating things. Nonetheless, there is a half-interesting point made about not letting other people run you over. Strickland knows that. Andy learns.
While all that stuff is good, there's something off about the movie. It tends to be a little repetitive. Much of the running time is devoted to Andy freaking out. Giving additional time to the supporting players or having some kind of “B-story” would have helped to break that up. There is a semi-subplot about Andy trying to make it to his daughter's talent show in time, although that concept has been done to death in other films. Fist Fight's reliance on gags pertaining to sex and genitals grows monotonous on occasion, as well.
This is a case where a superb cast elevates average material. Day, Cube, and the others are solid. The script is still hit or miss, though. They can only do so much with it. That makes Fist Fight a mixed bag. The film is amusing without ever becoming the side-splitter it obviously wants to be.
( 1/2 out of four)
Fist Fight is rated R for language throughout, sexual content/nudity and drug material. The running time is 1 hour and 31 minutes.
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