If the premise for Fist Fight sounds dumb to you from the start, you’re not mistaken — very little in the ensuing 90 minutes will dissuade you from your initial preconceptions that this film is far from high art. But, rest assured, this film could have been much, much worse. What limited recommendation I’m able to supply is largely on the basis of Charlie Day, whose performance is easily the strongest aspect of the entire production (although he’s ably supported by a strong ancillary cast — when the script gives them more than scraps to work with, that is). Where the film falls short is in its unwillingness to take risks. It’s almost like a PG-13 film that decided to go for an R rating at the last minute by incorporating copious f-bombs and penis drawings. And yet, it’s still more fun than it has any right to be.
Day has built a career out of playing a unique type of emotionally stunted everyman beset by the pressures of the modern world and driven mad by his own ineffectuality, often lashing out in hilariously unpredictable ways. Fist Fight very nearly misses the opportunity to use Day’s talents — and never manages to utilize them to their full capacity. As a milquetoast English teacher with his job on the line and a baby on the way, Day is forced to play the closest thing this film has to a straight man for the majority of the first two acts (in a role that feels better suited to Jason Bateman), finally unleashing a glimpse of his anarchic brilliance about an hour in when his desperation to avoid a scheduled pummeling — at the hands of Ice Cube as a no-nonsense rageaholic history teacher — reaches fever pitch.
As good as Day can be in those final moments, it’s not due to screenwriters Van Robichaux and Evan Susser or veteran TV director Richie Keen. Their movie is methodically structured but ponderously paced, leaving too much wiggle room between the few jokes that do land for the ones that don’t to be quickly forgotten. Tracy Morgan and Jillian Bell are both able to eke out a few unexpected laughs in their respective roles as a perennially losing coach and a guidance counselor with a penchant for jailbait. Less successful in elevating their one-note roles are Christina Hendricks, Dean Norris and Kumail Nanjiani just plays Kumail Nanjiani as a conflict-averse security guard. So, if the direction and writing are thoroughly uninspired and only about 40 percent of the cast is good, what is there to like about Fist Fight? In a word, nihilism.
Given the probable dystopic future of our public school system, Fist Fight’s (probably accidental) moral takes on a new resonance. Day only gains the respect of his students, peers and family after he resorts to every brutally backhanded tactic to defeat Ice Cube. His daughter defeats her own bully by publicly humiliating her in front of an assembly populated by other victims. And all of this works out, with Day regaining his job and his daughter taking over as a grade school tyrant who rules through the implication of reprisal. The message of the film is abundantly clear: To defeat the monster, you must become the monster. That may not be a particularly funny reading of the narrative, but it is one that hits home for anyone feeling depressed about the state of educational affairs in this country. Rated R for language throughout, sexual content/nudity and drug material.
Now Playing at Carmike 10, Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande, Epic of Hendersonville.