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Review – ‘Fist Fight’ is a Comedy at War With Itself

By  · Published on February 15th, 2017

‘Fist Fight’ is a Comedy at War With Itself

The loose remake of ‘Three O’Clock High’ doesn’t make the grade.

At the end of our screening of Fist Fight, a woman behind me who’d been laughing nonstop throughout said, “I needed that.” I wished I could have shared in her response, because in a way we do need a movie like this right now, a comedy about standing up to bullies and about a failing public school system on the verge of only getting worse. Unfortunately, Fist Fight was conceived in 2013, written in 2014, shot in 2015, and is just now being released. There’s certainly no political subtext to be found. Or anything of substance that makes any damn sense.

Inspired by the non-classic but fondly recalled 1987 teen movie Three O’Clock High, which pits dweeb Casey Siemaszko against a hulking Richard Tyson in the suspenseful lead up to a schoolyard fight, this time the conflict is between two high school teachers, the English department dweeb Mr. Campbell (Charlie Day) and the hothead History instructor Mr. Strickland (Ice Cube). They represent the generation that would have seen the original when they were young, and it continues a understandable trend of having nostalgic homages to movies centered around kids given more of an adult character perspective.

Fist Fight takes place over the course of one day – the last day of school, to be exact – and a lot is going on, including an out of control senior prank tradition and an untimely purging of faculty members by the principal (Dean Norris) and superintendent (Dennis Haysbert) where all the teachers are tasked with defending their jobs. Desperate to save his, if only because, as he keeps noting, he has a family with a baby on the way, Campbell snitches on Strickland for attacking a technologically puckish student with a fire axe. Strickland is fired, so he tells Campbell he’s going to fight him at the end of the school day.

The thing is, Campbell is definitely in the right to have the dangerous Strickland canned, even if the guy is the only employee of the school with any control and authority, as well as the only person with any reason when it comes to school budget spending and the interests of his students (plus he loves Ken Burns documentaries). It’s not like the absurd catalyst of Three O’Clock High, which simply involves a nice guy tapping the shoulder of a bad boy who doesn’t like to be touched. Much of the time, Cube’s Strickland, a throwback to another 1987 movie, The Principal (and also a reference to the principal of Back to the Future) is the wiser, more likable character of the leads, despite being the villain, yet he is guilty of his professional offense.

And actually, the character arc that Campbell goes through leads him to be more like Strickland, with any message brought forth by the movie being one of a need for law and order and discipline and care and fortitude from public educators. Fist Fight takes an over the top approach to showing how bad schools are and how disrespectful and unruly the students are with the context of being set on the wildest day of the year. Kids mow pornographic cartoons into the athletic field and park the principal’s vandalized car inside the building. A horse on meth runs through the halls.

But all that nonsense is played for laughs, of course, making the movie’s points diminished for the sake of ridiculous humor. And few of the adults are any more dependable in their judgment. Jillian Bell is a guidance counselor work pal of Campbell’s whose only trait and shtick is that she wishes to sleep with students (she wants their “teenis,” as she explains in her constantly professed desire to rape), while Christina Hendricks is even less explicable in her presence solely to brandish a butterfly knife and mime her interest in cutting Campbell for being, as she believes, a pervert. Tracy Morgan rounds out the gang as the worst football coach of all time.

It doesn’t matter if it’s “just a comedy” when so much of the humor is at the expense of the movie’s meaning. Fist Fight isn’t as bad as something like Dinner for Schmucks, which ultimately wants its cake and to eat it, too, with its condemnation of a group of guys who publicly mock strange individuals they’ve wrangled together being in contradiction to the fact that movie itself means for the audience to laugh at those eccentric characters. Sure, you can satirically ridicule the state of public schools, the failings of teachers, and today’s ill-mannered teens, but Fist Fight never does so intelligently enough to land its punches, and in the end it lazily gives all that it lampoons a pass.

Worse for its cause is the way it’s made, which is a bit out of control. This is the kind of comedy that is filled with improvisation and riffing, where outlines are scripted and scenarios are defined but then most of the jokes and gags seem to be thrown about chaotically. We’re shown some of this messy process in a blooper reel during the credits, in fact. There is some value in certain movies that are just canvases for brilliant comedic stars to run with, but even at its most talented this ensemble isn’t deserving of such freedom. And they don’t even have good comedic chemistry together.

Why can’t movies of this sort have more structure? Do the filmmakers (including Ice Cube and Day as producers, director Richie Keen, who worked with Day on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and a couple of unknown screenwriters now obviously working on the Wedding Crashers sequel) lack the confidence to tell a good story with consistent logic and point of view that also lends itself to both smart and side-splitting comedy? Movies like Fist Fight may get more audible reactions out of audiences than, say, Three O’Clock High, but they’re never anywhere near close to being as memorable.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.