Film

‘Fist Fight’ Purports to Be Transgressive Comedy but Pulls Its Punches

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It was interesting, and more than a little inspiring, to watch the public outcry against the nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education over the past couple of weeks — especially the online campaign in which, in response to DeVos’s ill-informed attacks on America’s supposedly failing public education system, people spoke fondly of their experiences in public schools. I say “interesting” because, as anyone who’s been to the movies with any kind of regularity can tell you, public schools on film are pretty much always dens of unspeakable chaos and violence — a land where administrations are always corrupt and dysfunctional, everything is constantly falling apart, and dumb, apathetic, possibly sociopathic kids regularly terrorize weak-kneed teachers. Should we really be surprised that a group of billionaire wannabe politicians who seem to get their vision of the world entirely through pop culture (Terrorists are everywhere! The inner cities are burning! Torture works!) think our schools are all hellholes?

The sour comedy Fist Fight won’t disabuse them of any of their illusions. At least it largely limits the insanity to the final day of the school year at suburban Roosevelt High, where the graduating class has so stopped giving a shit that some sport “I’m a senior, fuck you” T-shirts while others ride mattresses down stairs and concoct elaborate pranks involving the replacement of school trophies with porn.

Into this maelstrom of anarchy rides milquetoast English teacher Andy Campbell (Charlie Day), who goes along with all the insults and dick doodles in part because he’s a weakling but also because he knows there are firings afoot and, with his wife ready to give birth to their second child, he really can’t afford to lose his job just before summer break. Meanwhile, aggro, scowling history teacher Ron Strickland (Ice Cube) — “the scariest motherfucker in the school” — has a different approach, relying on intimidation and brutality to get through.

The instructors’ opposite approaches to life and work come to a head when, via an intricate series of events, Mr. Campbell winds up snitching out Mr. Strickland to the school principal for taking an axe to a misbehaving student’s desk. That inspires the latter to challenge the former to a fight in the parking lot. Soon #teacherfight is trending among the student body, and everybody’s confidently declaring that Mr. Campbell will be dead by sundown. (The plot feels like somebody decided to weld together two underseen Eighties high school comedies, Three O’Clock High and Teachers.)

Fearing for his life, and also concerned about making his daughter’s performance in a talent show that afternoon, Campbell tries to find a way out of his predicament. Among his solutions: pinning drugs on Mr. Strickland so as to get him arrested and, later, after they both land in jail, convincing a giant behemoth of an inmate to take the tough-guy history teacher out.

This is not a nice movie, and while its devil-may-care nastiness is occasionally bracing, it’s just as often frustrating. Mr. Campbell’s escalating duplicity does occasionally temper the film’s inadvertently queasy politics, which place us firmly in the perspective of a white teacher with an inner life being terrorized by a black teacher who seems like a sneering, shouting, relentless killing machine. The filmmakers occasionally pick at Campbell’s assumptions, as when he tries to frame Strickland with a small bag of molly and seems to think that the cops will automatically know whom to arrest.

But the discomfort merely hangs there, unresolved and uncertain. I also wish the script had done more with the suggestion that the school administration is welcoming the fight for serving to distract everyone from the fact that they’re firing people left and right. Fist Fight purports to be transgressive in its humor, but it plays things safe when it comes to anything resembling social critique. But then again, it’s not that kind of comedy.

Still, Ice Cube and Charlie Day have fun with their parts: Day has a gift for slapstick, and watching him anxiously sprint and bounce through the hallways, hiding in lockers and sneaking around bathrooms, makes for an effective contrast to Cube’s persistent rage. And it’s somehow to the film’s credit that the fight, when it does come, is an honest-to-god knockdown, drag-out affair complete with biting, choking, body-slamming, head-stomping, shattered windshields and several fire hydrant blows to the face. All that negative energy has to go somewhere.

Fist Fight isn’t there to make you think, but to make you laugh, and it mostly does. It’s a relief to find a major comedy these days that doesn’t seem to rely on epic ad-lib sessions that have been edited down and strung together; scenes here have shape and concision. Extra credit goes to the supporting cast, including Tracy Morgan as a hapless coach and Jillian Bell as the horny, strung-out guidance counselor, both of whom get some of the movie’s biggest laughs. Thanks to that cast, and some savvy direction, you might very well enjoy Fist Fight. But don’t be surprised if it also leaves a sour taste in your mouth.

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