Fist Fight Charlie Day, Ice Cube, Jillian Bell. Directed by Richie Keen. Rated R. Opens Friday citywide.
Early in the dreadful comedy Fist Fight, angry history teacher Mr. Strickland (Ice Cube) promises nervous English teacher Mr. Campbell (Charlie Day) that he’s going to punch him in the face, but Campbell is far from the only character in this movie who deserves a pop in the mouth. A very loose riff on High Noon, Fist Fight is witless, brainless and heartless, with unpleasant characters, moronic jokes, a paper-thin plot and a disingenuous message that pretends to excuse all the repetitive vulgarity that preceded it.
Strickland and Campbell teach at a hellhole of a high school where all the students are cartoonishly awful, tormenting the teachers, refusing to learn and gleefully destroying school property at will. The teachers and administrators aren’t much better, and although Campbell is shown trying to impart some vague wisdom to his students and Strickland clearly cares about order and discipline, neither one seems to have any interest in inspiring or connecting with young people. On a day when the entire faculty is being re-evaluated for a round of budget cuts, a misunderstanding between Campbell and Strickland leads to the latter losing his job, for which he blames his colleague. The challenge is then set: At the end of the school day, the duo will engage in a fist fight, whether Campbell wants to or not.
In the meantime, Campbell does everything he can to avoid the fight, quickly descending into depravity as he bribes students, buys drugs and snaps at his superiors. The cowardly, desperate Campbell is no more sympathetic than the glowering, short-tempered Strickland, and even Campbell’s pregnant wife and young daughter are obnoxious. Comedies about terrible people can still be funny, but the filmmakers don’t embrace the story’s potential darkness, instead wallowing in ugly clichés, with belabored dick jokes and profane insults. The comedic climax involves the lazy device of a young child uttering a bunch of swear words (nearly exactly the same bit that was used in the recent Robert De Niro comedy misfire The Comedian).
The fight itself starts out as an amusing anticlimax before dragging into an interminable, over-the-top melee, after which the movie attempts a cynical moral about respecting teachers and education. Day and Cube give the same performances they’ve given in numerous other roles, and supporting players Jillian Bell and Tracy Morgan do likewise. There’s nothing creative or clever or subversive about Fist Fight. It promises a punch in the face, and that’s exactly what it delivers.