“Fist Fight” is a movie about two teachers who go ahead and fight each other because that is something you wouldn’t expect two teachers to do. And if there is one thing that “Fist Fight” thinks is funny, it’s teachers doing things teachers wouldn’t normally do.
“Look, that teacher does drugs!” “Look, that teacher swears a lot!” “Look, that teacher is a potentially psychotic killer!” “Look, that teacher is Ice Cube!” This list represents a comprehensive compilation of every single joke in the entire hour and thirty-one-minute ordeal that is “Fist Fight.”
While jokes like these are occasionally funny, it’s not the kind of humor on which to base an entire feature film. It’s a running joke, a bit. Ultimately, “Fist Fight” is just like the jokes it tells; sometimes it’ll get a laugh, but for the most part, it feels like a one-note sitcom episode that lasts ninety minutes instead of twenty.
“Fist Fight” is doubly disappointing considering the comedic pedigree of its cast. Charlie Day, the breakout star of FXX’s terrific “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” stars, squaring off against Ice Cube, who has turned in scene-stealing comedic work in the “Jump Street” movies. The two are backed up by Tracy Morgan (“30 Rock”), Jillian Bell (“22 Jump Street”), and Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley”), as well as dramatic performers like Dean Norris (“Breaking Bad”) and Christina Hendricks (“Mad Men”).
This is an insane cast, and to their credit, they all do great work. Day acquits himself quite well as the straight man of the movie, though the manic energy that has made him the fan favorite character of “Sunny” inevitably shines through. Ice Cube plays the kind of “angry guy” role that he could do in his sleep by this point in his career, but he does it well enough that it’s hard to get too upset over. Arguably the biggest surprise in the cast is Norris, who portrays the high school’s put-upon principal, who seems like he is growing closer and closer to losing his mind as the story wears on. Like much of the cast, it’s a bit role, but Norris makes it one of the more memorable parts of the movie.
Still, with a cast this good, there should be material worthy of that talent, and there is little to none to be found in “Fist Fight.” Apart from the absolute dearth of any sort of wit—former Funny or Die writers Van Robichaux and Evan Susser fill the movie with as many F-bombs as possible and erroneously believe that counts as comedy—the film features the bane of modern R-rated comedies: the shoehorned in emotional B-story.
You know the one where the main character has to learn the value of friendship or the main character has to learn to believe in himself or the main character has to be a better employee. It’s the storyline where large swaths of people leave the theater to refill their popcorn or go to the bathroom because they know there will be nothing funny for the next five minutes. Here, “Fist Fight” proves to be the most economical kind of movie, as it crams three of these into itself for the price of one. Day’s character has to learn to be a better father and he has to learn to stand up for himself and he has to worry about his job. Not only do these function as a way to give the plot some illusion of stake, but it gives the writers a way to espouse the message of the film as much as possible: words matter.
And that is where “Fist Fight” falls shortest of all, because while it all but breaks the fourth wall to get its meaning across, everything that happen within the movie contradicts it. Words matter, but nothing the characters do has any consequences. Words matter, but do whatever you want, it’ll turn out okay. Words matter, just not our words. It is hypocritical in a way that is almost inspiring. If it felt like anyone but the cast had put any effort into it, “Fist Fight” might be salvageable, but it can’t escape its own idiotic duplicity and boring humor.