Fist Fight is the kind of studio comedy that makes the fatal mistake of relying solely on its star power, as though laughs can be wrung from the simple act of casting people who have been reliably funny in other movies and TV shows. When the film isn’t trading on the hilarity of beta male cowardice and cheering on its hero’s inevitable evolution into a ragingly obnoxious alpha, director Richie Keen seems to simply be content to point the camera, and assume that Charlie Day and Ice Cube will be hilarious together in front of it, without much of any help from the film’s beyond-exhausted script. After all, one is nervous and wiry, and the other is bigger and very gruff indeed! It’s comedy gold!
Alas, Fist Fight is quite the opposite, a montage of exhausted gags that somehow manages to overstay its welcome while clocking in at less than 90 minutes. Andy Campbell (Day) is a high school English teacher, eager to see out the last day of the year at his hellish public school, a land where the students run free without any respect or concern for their teachers. It’s Senior Prank Day, and in the film’s one small touch of inspiration, the pranks fall less into the realm of stacking desks or switching seats, and are more along the lines of dosing a horse with meth and letting it run freely through the halls. (“Damn those undisciplined youths,” the film seems to shout, “with their smartphones and their loud music and their Dan Fogelberg!”)
Campbell is one of the many teachers struggling to reach the student body, but he’s an especially panicky sort, with a kid on the way and a daughter (Alexa Nisenson) whose entire talent show performance depends on her dad showing up on time to perform Rent’s “Seasons of Love,” as the children often do these day. And that’s before he arrives to learn that the yearly performance reviews have turned into a bloodbath, with many of his fellow teachers being laid off due to budget cuts one after the next. He goes to class hoping to give an inspiring speech to his departing seniors, and they respond by drawing elaborate dicks on his whiteboard with Sharpies. He attempts to stop a student from masturbating in the bathroom stalls, and is mistaken for a pervert. Campbell can’t win.
His cardinal sin comes a bit later in the day, though, when he runs afoul of Strickland (Cube), a violently authoritarian history teacher. Strickland, who refers to Campbell as “light roast,” stands as a figure of deep intimidation for the harried teacher, in no small part because of his willingness to brandish a baseball bat at unruly students from time to time. After a prank results in Strickland taking a fire axe to a student’s desk, the principal (Dean Norris) offers a simple resolution: either both teachers will be fired over the incident, or one of them can rat the other out. Campbell snitches (he’s got a kid on the way, after all), Strickland loses his job, and Campbell is told that they’ll be meeting in the parking lot to have it out the old-fashioned way at 3:00 whether he wants to or not.
Fist Fight is really only built on two jokes: that Day isn’t the fighting type, and that Cube was once a famous gangsta rapper and is therefore scary. It’s far too slight of a comedy to bring any of those traits out through character, and it doesn’t help that both talented actors are only asked to hit their most basic signature notes throughout. As that goes, Day manages to find occasional laughs in his constant mania, ramping up from quiet discomfort to shrieking apoplexy in seconds. Since he’s never asked to do anything more, his high-pitched freakouts lose their comic luster before long, but at least he’s given the chance to try. Cube, who’s proven himself a deadpan comic with freakishly sharp timing in the Jump Street films and elsewhere, is limited to a wholly thankless character, left to physically impose and occasionally smash things (or people) and do little else.
What’s most unfortunate about Fist Fight is the wealth of talent it amasses for little to no discernible purpose. Tracy Morgan has a handful of funny one-liners as the PE teacher, but mostly exists to lend inflection to ramble and obliviously miss out on students mowing penises into the football field. Jillian Bell is saddled with a running pedophilia gag that not even the actress’ hilariously straight-faced delivery can sell. Kumail Nanjiani shows up as a security guard with less than five minutes of screen time, and that’s better than either Christina Hendricks (as a quietly menacing French teacher) or Dennis Haysbert (as the superintendent) manage. The film seems less concerned with giving any of its talents anything to do than with its high-concept pitch, and it leaves the whole thing to grow tedious before long.
The pacing is equally off, the film frequently employing haphazard cuts from scene to scene, sometimes in what feels like the middle of an unfinished joke. Conversely, there are several exchanges between Day and Cube which run on interminably, relying on one or both of the stars to enliven their awkwardly overlong scenes through sheer force of will. It’s a hard trick to pull off, especially when Fist Fight treats its eventual message and purpose (the need for teachers to take authority back from unruly public schools by any means necessary) just as lazily as it does its climactic barrage of a Big Meeting, a Big Student Recital (lifted right from Little Miss Sunshine), and a Big Showdown. There’s nothing for the actors to really sink their teeth into, just a series of would-be “edgy” shock gags and a ferocious over-reliance on the comedy of teachers behaving badly.
There’s little to Fist Fight that distinguishes itself, and it’s the kind of comedy that’s good for the odd laugh every few minutes, but also dissipates from memory almost as soon as it ends. It’s also the kind of comedy where the blooper reel over the end credits isn’t even all that funny, which should tell you everything else you might need to know.