Whether or not Fist Fight is high at the top of your “movies to see” list depends an awful lot on your relationship with Charlie Day. If you can’t stand Day’s high-pitched shrieking schtick, then you’re probably happy to pay money to see him get the tar knocked out of him. And if you are a fan of the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia star, the thought of watching him take a punch to the gob likely appeals to you anyway. Day is a perennial loser, filling the role of both the schlemiel and the schlimazel at the same time on TV and in movies: He’s the guy who can’t help spilling his soup in his own lap, and he’s also the guy whose lap is a magnet for everybody else’s spilled soup. He’s an unlucky clutz.
That makes Fist Fight a near-perfect project for his star persona by virtue of its synopsis alone. Day plays Andy Campbell, an English teacher working at a frighteningly underfunded high school in Atlanta, trying to make it through the last day of class in one piece before summer vacation. He’s a self-described nice guy whose balmy, unfailing politeness is as endearing as it is grating; the kind of person whose affability invites puzzlement. He doesn’t inspire his students to greatness. He inspires them to draw dicks on the whiteboard and snicker at his efforts to do his job. Campbell’s faculty colleagues don’t help much, either, being too stressed out either to care or to function. We learn quickly that every teacher in the joint is on the chopping block, a single unflattering review away from being fired by Principal Tyler (Dean Norris).
Between the job insecurity and the kids, who are basically depicted as a roving pack of pubescent monsters, Campbell’s career sucks. After witnessing the resident faculty bruiser, Strickland (Ice Cube), chop a student’s desk to splinters with a fire axe, his career is no longer the problem. His well being is. Strickland gets canned when Campbell snitches on him to Tyler, and enraged at the betrayal, Strickland challenges Campbell to fisticuffs after school gets out. It’s as simple, as stupid, and as promising a set-up as that, no tricks to it: Two men agree to beat the tobacco juice out of each other for no other reason than to prove their manhood for all the world to see, from their students, their peers, and their families (specifically Campbell’s wife and daughter, who just love him to pieces, but are quick to point out that he’s a total pushover).
Beneath the sheer insanity of its premise, that’s what Fist Fight is all about: a toxic and outmoded category of masculinity, where the dude who tries to avoid solving problems via brute strength is bagged on by everyone in his vicinity, and the guy who’s so unhinged he thinks that going full-slasher on an admittedly obnoxious teen is rewarded for his lunacy with validations of his manliness. The film’s analysis of its leads is precisely that fundamental—Campbell is a pussy, Strickland is a man—but whether Fist Fight endorses that idea is in the eye of the beholder. Yes, there’s a payoff to the title, and yes, the climax, in which Cube and Day stage what’s essentially a hardcore wrestling match in a rundown high school. It’s gloriously bonkers, and a slapstick battle well worth the price of admission. In the end, that’s probably all that matters.
But it’s hard to talk about the film without talking about its perspectives on what it means to be a man, even if the narrative here isn’t intended to be taken seriously. Fist Fight occurs in a parallel universe of sorts where teachers manage to get away with creeping on students (a’la Jillian Bell’s horny guidance counselor), creeping on students’ parents (Tracy Morgan), carrying around butterfly knives (Christina Hendricks, wonderfully demented, but woefully underused), or just being plain old terrifying, like Cube, whose steely, furious exterior belie how much fun he’s having causing mayhem. We aren’t in reality, in other words, so worrying about optics or themes feels besides the film’s point. Director Richie Keen doesn’t seem all that interested in examining issues of male self-esteem in earnest. He just wants to shoot Cube socking Day in the schnoz ad nauseam, and he wants his audience to have a blast watching their cartoonish melee.
As endeavors go, mindless, goofy violence isn’t the worst. The trouble is that Fist Fight is never quite mindless enough. There’s a stockpile of crazy loaded in the picture’s margins, and it’s a king bummer that Keen never fully capitalizes on it, even when Day and Cube are bashing each other with school bus stop signs and using staplers as improvised weapons. True, the film at least bothers having core motifs, not just in regards to masculinity but also the state of the American public school system, and it’d be unfair to claim that neither element has value in the framework of Keen’s story. But when a movie toes the line of truth as much as Fist Fight does, its more earnestly felt sentiments become harder to swallow. We wind up choking on them instead.
If grown men laying waste to one another is your idea of a good time, then Fist Fight’s climax is worth the slim time investment necessary to get there. That’s the most the movie has to offer, though, and it’s just too damn bad Keen doesn’t strive to ascend higher peaks of lunacy in a film designed to do so.
Director: Richie Keen
Writer: Van Robichaux, Evan Susser
Starring: Charlie Day, Ice Cube, Jillian Bell, Tracy Morgan, Christina Hendricks, Dean Norris, JoAnna Garcia, Kumail Nanjiani
Release Date: February 17, 2017
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for Movie Mezzanine, The Playlist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.