Film Review: Fist Fight

Nerd English teacher faces off against a bully in this easygoing, underachieving comedy.
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The setup for Fist Fight—pit wimpy Charlie Day against über-thug Ice Cube—looks so much like comedy gold that everyone in the movie pretty much stopped right there. More fun than funny, and marred by endless f-bombs, Fist Fight still emanates enough good will to capture its fan base of Cube and "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" followers.

In cable's "Philadelphia" and movies like the Horrible Bosses series, Day has perfected a kind of whiny, spineless schlub who will finally bare some claws when the script demands. As high-school English teacher Andy Campbell, he's also asked to show some morals and sentiment in trying to protect his heavily pregnant wife Maggie (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) and bullied young daughter Ally (Alexa Nisenson).

Campbell works at Roosevelt High School, where dyspeptic principal Tyler (Dean Norris) has to fire 30 teachers during Senior Prank Day. One of those teachers could be Ron Strickland (Ice Cube), first seen brandishing a baseball bat and terrifying everyone in his path.

The script (by Van Robichaux and "Funny or Die" contributor Evan Susser) takes its time setting up the death match between Campbell and Strickland, which sprouts from a new coffeemaker in the teachers' lounge and moves to a VHS copy of the Ken Burns “Civil War” documentary.

Cube's Strickland actually has a moral compass and something to say about brain-dead students coasting through classes that do nothing for them. Day's more accommodating Campbell is still trying to make E.E. Cummings relevant for kids who couldn't care less. Getting Campbell to abandon his principles is about all the writers have in the way of a narrative arc.

That is, apart from invaluable wild cards like Tracy Morgan (as a gym teacher) and Jillian Bell (as a sex-crazed guidance counselor), who do their best to subvert their scenes with deadpan non-sequiturs. When Morgan explains exactly how Cube's punches will "knock the sex out of" Day, or Bell rationalizes the drugs she takes off campus, Fist Fight reaches a level of lunacy that can be very satisfying.

Unfortunately, director Richie Keen (making his feature debut after working on "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," "Shameless" and several other TV shows) has trouble sustaining that tone. Or in fact holding onto any storyline at all. Fist Fight keeps jumping around from social media to porn, inept security guards, drug dealing, talent shows, school budgets, you name it. Every now and then the movie will return to its senses and remember that Cube is supposed to pulverize Day.

The one real thread holding Fist Fight together is its relentlessly coarse language. By the time sweet little Ally drops the mic on an R-rated version of Big Sean's "I Don't F**k With You," viewers will have learned a valuable lesson about desensitization.

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