New York City’s harsh streets may have jaded this innocent critic, but a sense of humor still flickers on. I swear it. My laughter during Bob’s Burgers is disruptive to anyone in a 100-yard radius. So why have mainstream comedies been leaving me empty and numb? Fist Fight hits upon everything that should tickle my pop-culture funnybone. Ice Cube references pepper this gangster vs. Charlie Day rumble – something I’d pay top dollar for – yet the film itself lands soft, unflinching blows. Dick jokes and obscenities merely strive for passing marks, while the film’s curriculum couldn’t be more by-the-books. Are we sure this screenplay wasn’t scribbled down during a boring lecture?
Day stars as good-guy teacher Mr. Campbell, who fearfully works at a deplorable high school alongside his colleague, Cube’s Mr. Strickland. Campbell finds himself in Strickland’s history class, where one of the seniors is pranking their cantankerous advisor. Strickland doesn’t take the joke lightly, and splits his student’s desk with an axe. This lands both Campbell and Strickland in principal Tyler’s office (played by Dean Norris), where Campbell rats out Strickland. Bad idea. Strickland gets fired, and calls Campbell out to fight at 3PM after school. No ifs, ands or buts. Bitches get stitches.
As a concept, Fist Fight excites. Strickland isn’t just a brute thug. Writers Van Robichaux, Evan Susser and Max Greenfield undercut comedy with themes about educational abandon, and the neglectful lows that public schools are eyeing. Strickland wants to beat Campbell’s wesley ass for obvious reasons, but his motivation is to draw attention towards their school’s inexcusable status. So he gets to whoop some cowardly white dude’s butt and savor a little revenge – all icing on top, baby. Believe it or not, there’s something more hidden under penis landscape designs and dry-erase dicks. You have to look for it – long and hard – but it’s there.
That said, Fist Fight suffocates a genuine script with easy, intro-level juvenility. Jillian Bell plays a meth-taking guidance counsellor who wants to fuck some jailbait “tweenis,” while senior pranks are stoner-level weak. Numerous teachers comment on how the students are stepping up their delinquency game, but baby-oiled floors and some iPhone app TV controls hardly scream anarchy. Nine-times-out-of-ten, punchlines end with some kind of reference to drugs, masturbation or crazy-hot Christina Hendricks. Admittedly, some gimmicks deserve laughs – but the real entertainment exists between Day and Cube. As it should. The film just doesn’t milk their dynamic.
One mediation scene teases what possibly could have been. In it, Bell’s counsellor tries to unite her two angry co-workers by dragging them into a model UN room. Campbell sits behind Israel, Strickland Iran. Bell notices, and asked if they want to change identities. Strickland grabs North Korea. Day commences with his screechy whining versus Cube’s killer glare, and differences are worsened. Are you surprised? Most of your yucks will come from Strickland’s take-no-bullshit attitude, as he spends 90% of Fist Fight piercing Day’s armor with stone-cold intensity (and a “Fuck the police” line for good measure). As the muscle, Cube’s straight-outta-Compton instincts are expected, appreciated and needed to balance Day’s schtick.
Where Cube gets by on signature ruggedness, Day underwhelms as a sweetheart who’s been pushed around his whole life. He’s the middle-aged wuss who bribes students with MacBook Pros instead of handling his own problems. The slowly unraveling parent who fears for his job, cowers and can’t throw a punch. Campbell is Day’s Pacific Rim scientist all over again, only he must fight a different kind of monster in the form of self-pride. It’s the role Day was born to be typecasted as, but he’s never as funny as his supporting mates. Young Alexa Nisenson steals their father/daughter dance to Big Sean’s “I Don’t Fuck With You,” Kumail Nanjiani shifts focus as a cut-rate security guard and Tracy Morgan’s return overshadows most interactions. Day merely appears along for the ride, when he’s not stammering through high-pitched anxiety.
Fist Fight delivers once Campbell mans-up and steps into Strickland’s hardened world, but all the punches, concussions and broken windshields can’t turn back time. Television director Richie Keen’s big-screen debut avoids a failing grade, but doesn’t quite pass with flying colors, either. It’s a comedy with little desire, as characters are reduced to archetypes with rough slapstick definition. The curvy, gorgeous teacher hiding a violence fetish. The hot-headed disciplinarian. The overly-chipper English instructor who tries so hard to combat life’s relentless torture. All scripted novelties, lost to students who think putting pornographic videos in a school trophy case counts as a prank. Immaturity that’s expected, with none of the lasting value. Might make for a nice HBO movie-night in, though?