Let’s get this out of the way: FIST FIGHT is way better than it has any business being. In an age where many major studio comedies push past the two-hour mark and are embellished with torrents of riffing and redundant side characters, this Richie Keen movie gets to the point. It has structure. It tells a story. It knows what it’s doing and it knows why it’s doing it. There are moments of high-flight silliness and much of the humour is wildly “inappropriate,” but it’s also very funny. Often stunningly so.
It’s the last day of the school year at a chaotic and brutally underfunded public school and that means the students are out of control. Andy Campbell (Charlie Day) is a dupe of an English teacher and he’s trying to endure it, but he’s worried about his job. Ron Strickland (Ice Cube) is the history teacher and he’s also on the chopping block, but his approach differs. He doesn’t mind cracking heads if it gets the students to learn. The educators clash after a series of events and Strickland challenges Campbell to a good old-fashioned rumble. Campbell spends the day trying to get out of it, while Strickland’s motives are deeper than you might think.
A certain degree of FIST FIGHT deals in catharsis. Watching Campbell’s journey from softy to soldier is interesting because it doesn’t take the anticipated route. He discerns that his approach to learning – and indeed to life – isn’t working. Staying out of the fray isn’t always the best solution to life’s snags and a little confrontation can have value. Strickland, on the other hand, learns that he requires moderation. But his motives are pure and that’s what’s unique about FIST FIGHT. His actions demarcate a bigger problem in the education system, with topics as comprehensive as funding and behaviour providing context.
You could enumerate all the “problematic” humour in FIST FIGHT, but what’s the use? There are coarse jokes and some might find it obnoxious to see teachers smacking students around. But in the grand scheme of things, the bedlam works. And it’s damn funny when Jillian Bell’s character lets her id do the talking. Tracy Morgan, Dean Norris and Christina Hendricks do well in support roles, while Alexa Nisenson plays Campbell’s daughter and tackles a Big Sean song with amusing results. Sure, the comedy is broad. Sure, the jokes can be cheap and even “mean.” But there’s more to this pithy comedy than the sum of its parts. And today, that’s kind of a treat.