Loosely based on the 1987 comedy Three O’Clock High, Fist Fight follows one man’s simple but profound transformation into someone with a backbone. And, if you watched the trailer, you can probably suspect that that man isn’t Ice Cube.
Coming out the gate, Fist Fight is a joint that leans as heavily into comedic timing as it can because the premise itself is ridiculous. Again, speaking of the trailers: Fist Fight’s initial theatrical promos are cut in a way that lead us to assume that the entire film hinges on a brawl between history teacher Ron Strickland (Ice Cube) and English teacher Andy Campbell (Charlie Day). On the surface this can seem off putting, as it’s absolutely paper thin. Despite this, there are many deeper mechanics at work to keep things going. In fact, Fist Fight writes multiple comedic checks in order to front the bill of your attention span. And I truly thank the lord that it does, because the film could’ve easily fallen apart at any moment otherwise.
As a spineless dweeb of a man, Andy barely survives working at his local high school, which is billed as underfunded, overworked and terribly managed. In this role, Charlie Day does an exceptional job of fleshing out this wimpy man’s character. From frantically trying to be as non-offensive as possible with Strickland, to painfully sucking up to his superiors, Andy is an interesting descendent of Woody Allen-esque neurotics. He does diverge however as the stakes rise (naturally,) leaning into a manic man who’s willing to risk it all for his dignity and family.
This of course is foiled by his rogue’s galleries of fellow underpaid and under-appreciated peers. First up is Ice Cube’s Strickland, who’s all hulking black rage and absurdist professionalism. He’s feared throughout the school and yet, he can’t get a VCR to work. There’s a lot of unspoken and some softly-hinted-at racial issues in this polarity, between the straight-laced white guy and Cube’s hyper-aggressive character. Especially when you realize that Ron basically serves as a magical negro to encourage Andy’s growth into a better man (*throws up in mouth*). And, let’s not even get into how the dynamics of how Andy’s work to subvert Strickland and avoid the beating he’s set to receive are almost as racist as they are a commentary on how whiteness works in their own right. *sigh* That’s an essay unto itself and I’ve got other shit to do, so I won’t write it. I bet you someone else already has though.
So, racial theory and politics and discussions aside, Cube’s performance is reminiscent of nearly any black male teacher who’s taught on-screen and in real life. On the spectrum, he’s an NWA version of your high school sub who’s halfway between Morgan Freeman’s Joe Clark and Keegan Michael Key’s Mr. Garvey. On its own, Cube’s performance is funny, but it undoubtedly leans on the context of these fellow portrayals (and others within the popular consciousness) to tap on your funny bone.
Jillian Bell and Tracy Morgan play Andy’s confidants, as school counselor and coach respectively. Hopped up on sexual vice (and crystal meth,) Bell’s Counselor Holly balances semi-cool advice with increasingly diverse come ons to her (legally aged) students. Similarly, Tracy Morgan’s Coach Crawford is basically Tracy Morgan playing Tracy Morgan playing the foolish savant, quipping endlessly about fighting, his failures as a coach and his love of shorts over pants. Additionally, Christina Hendricks plays a sultry French teacher who has a penchant for walking around with a butterfly knife.
Together, the interactions these teachers have with each other and a host of other characters make up the heart and soul of the film. When Fist Fight ventures too far outside of this and its joke-on-joke-on-joke structure, it tears a bit at the seams. Sure, there’s enough to argue that the film’s comedy is actually a dark commentary on the terrible state of high schools in America, the irresponsible bureaucracy of educational administration and how many children have actually been left behind because of it all. But the strands are thin and the reaches needed to make that thinkpiecery would all be Mr. Fantastic in length. This isn’t a (complete) dig, really. After all, this is a comedy about two teachers scrapping in the yard on the last day of school. Rather, it’s a note on the limits of films that stretch a skit idea into a feature-length experience. This shouldn’t come as a surprise either: director Richard Keen’s background includes a heavy amount of work with Day’s usual gig, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. So I wouldn’t be shocked if this film literally started as a skit pitch that happened to get the green light from some moneyed producer.
I digress. But not really.
When the pencils are down, Fist Fight is a rollicking collection of jokes that are as weird and foolish as they are creative. While they may not all land, they do end up garnering a response — be you laughing or making faces in disgust, or somewhere in between. Which speaks to a serious commitment to getting you through its runtime. Pair this with a pretty stacked lineup of lead and supporting talent, and you’ve got yourself a comedy that’s ultimately worth peeping at your leisure. Be it now, or later this year when school’s out frfr.
Dap owns Timberland boots and is committed to loving black women, eating good food and diversifying media as he sees fit and while he can. He can be found yelling into the abyss and being snarky on the following: IG | Twitter