The high school-set comedy “Fist Fight” really revs up those three Rs: rowdy, raunchy and ridiculous. For much of its fast-paced running time, the film, which involves an after-school fight between two polar-opposite teachers, is just amusing enough to make up for its sheer preposterousness; it operates in such a seemingly far-fetched world that logic is out the window at pretty much hello.
At least one hopes the movie’s portrayal of sadistic educators, growling principals, smug teens who treat teachers like dirt, and institutional anarchy is an exaggeration — or maybe just a wacky stab at satire. Yet, according to the press notes, in researching their script, Van Robichaux and Evan Susser talked to “a bunch of public school teachers” who revealed, “It’s crazy out there.” The writers sure took that one to the bank.
Still, amid all the silly, at times nasty mayhem, there’s a main character with such a relatable core of can’t-we-all-just-get-along decency that, even if comedy tropes demand he eventually go nuclear, his jittery, underdog presence keeps us invested.
This would be Andy Campbell (Charlie Day), a sincere, mild-mannered English teacher with a very pregnant wife (JoAnna Garcia Swisher), fretful tween daughter (Alexa Nisenson) and desperate need to keep his endangered position at an ailing, suburban Atlanta high school.
But just when it looks as if Andy’s job is safe — his life is not. That’s because, on the last day of the school year, he inadvertently runs afoul of the scariest dude to roam the halls of Roosevelt High: history teacher Ron Strickland (Ice Cube), an unhinged, seething ball of anger who’ll chop a wayward student’s desk in half with an axe if the occasion calls for it. (And it does.) How a maniac like this, even in a movie like this, has kept his job for five minutes, is a comedy bridge too far.
No matter, said axe incident ends up implicating both Ron and Andy, leading to a sit-down with the irascible, downsizing-happy Principal Tyler (Dean Norris) in which a cornered Andy reflexively throws Ron under the school bus. Ron gets fired — and fired up — challenging Andy to a 3 p.m. fist fight.
Echoing the 1987 teen comedy “Three O’Clock High” (that film saw two mismatched students at odds), a hyper-anxious Andy spends the day figuring out ways to avoid certain pummeling while Ron further digs in his heels. At the same time, news of the fight blazes across campus and quickly goes viral, even spawning its own hashtag.
Adding insult to potential injury, it’s also senior prank day, which turns the school into a virtual “Animal House” of extreme practical jokes. Stunts involving meth-addled horses, a roaming mariachi band, super-slippery floors and liberal uses of paint and glue are but a few zany bits that factor in — and don’t do the faculty any favors. These antics do, however, elicit a better-than-average laugh ratio.
A late-breaking scene at an elementary school talent show that finds Andy’s stressed daughter surprisingly busting out an untoward rap song is also a hoot, even if it evokes a similar, kids-perform-the-darndest-things sequence from “Little Miss Sunshine.”
Unfortunately, whatever manic goodwill the film has accrued by this point, thanks largely to the highly engaging, Energizer Bunny performance of Day (“Horrible Bosses,” TV’s “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”), is undercut by the inevitable battle between Andy and Ron.
Despite the movie’s title, hand-to-hand combat soon gives way to bloody, crashing, anything-goes cheat-brawling that wouldn’t be out of place in a superhero smackdown, but simply feels nutso and gratuitous here. The fight proves far too cruel and over-the-top to cede to the film’s eventual “lesson,” especially vis à vis the event’s student spectators.
But since no one will ever accuse this picture, aptly directed by Richie Keen, of high-mindedness, maybe climactic sanity is, sadly, too much to ask of such a whatever-it-takes comedy.
Countering Day’s elastic charm, Cube mostly just does his familiar steam-and-glower thing, about all that’s asked of his exceedingly one-note character. And, although Christina Hendricks and Dennis Haysbert are lost in ill-conceived roles, “30 Rock’s” Tracy Morgan as an inept sports coach, Jillian Bell playing a randy guidance counselor, and Kumail Nanjiani as a needling security guard offer supporting fun.
Rating: R, for language throughout, sexual content/nudity and drug material
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes
Playing: In general release
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