Almost thirty years ago, there was a sleeper comedy hit called, Three O’Clock High, in which a nerd named Jerry Mitchell got himself in hot water with the school’s behemoth of a bully and found himself challenged to a fight after school. It was pretty good.
Fist Fight is essentially the same film only with potty-mouthed teachers and played for R-rated comedy. It’s not quite as good, but after an extensive set-up, it builds into an explosive, hilarious Big Finish.
On the last day of the year, mild-mannered high school English teacher Andy Campbell (Charlie Day) is trying his best to keep it together amidst senior pranks, a dysfunctional administration, and budget cuts that put jobs on the line. But things go from bad to worse when he accidentally crosses his much tougher and deeply feared colleague, Ron Strickland (Ice Cube), who challenges Campbell to an old-fashioned throwdown after school.
The first act of Fist Fight details how Andy is having a truly awful day on his last day before the summer break – Maggie (JoAnna Garcia Swisher), his pregnant wife is three late; the kids at Roosevelt High are going on overboard ‘Senior Prank Day;’ the school’s principal (Dean Norris), faced with cutbacks, is firing teachers left and right, and Andy has promised to perform with his daughter, Ally (Alexa Nisenson) at her elementary school talent show (she wants to do a Big Sean song…).
When the school’s scariest teacher, Mr. Strickland, saves Andy from an over-the-top prank, he returns the favor by trying to help with a misbehaving VCR – which leads to another, smarter, student prank that is the last straw for Strickland. Who promptly takes a fire ax to the student’s desk – putting him and Andy in the principal’s office, facing termination.
When Principal Tyler threatens to fire both of them, Andy gives up Strickland – and is challenged to a fist fight after school (‘Bitches get stitches!’).
The second act is mostly Andy trying to avoid having to fight Strickland. The final act…
The first two-thirds of the movie are filled with various gags, vocal and visual, that pay off about half the time. They are almost universally crude and vulgar, but only a couple are sex-related. Most revolve around pranks (not particularly inspired pranks – except for one that centers of two students mowing the football field) and the rest are peculiarly timed one-liners – the best coming from misguided guidance counselor Holly (Jillian Bell) and the incompetent Coach Crawford (Tracy Morgan). Bell and Morgan keep the comedy ship afloat when it threatens to founder.
It isn’t until even bribery and jail can’t prevent the fight that Fist Fight truly soars. Suddenly all the set up comes together in a hectic flurry of Andy’s year end interview – where everything he’s gone through make him snap; his daughter’s talent show (funniest non-fight moment in the movie), and the actual, surprisingly inventive fight.
Written by Van Robichaux and Susser (from a story by them and New Girl’s Max Greenfield), and directed by Richie Keen (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), Fist fight comes in at a tight 91 minutes, but cut still lose five or ten minutes of set up and it would be a better movie.
As it is, while the set up introduces the film’s host of supporting characters, there are maybe a few too many – Christine Hendrix’s scary Miss Monet only registers because she’s bats**t crazy under her cool demeanor (that her two minutes of screen time work is more a testament to her talent than the writing/direction), for example, and there’s a revisited bathroom gag that isn’t actually funny, so there’s about five minutes right there.
Still, Fist Fight is well worth seeing for that last act. From the moment Andy snaps, things reach the acme of crazy; the pacing ramps up and everything snaps into sharp focus (if you don’t hurt yourself laughing at Andy and Ally’s talent show performance, you simply have no sense of humor) – and the post-fight tags provide a little extra heart and one really good final laugh.
Stay ‘til the end of the credits for a final tag, featuring Tracy Morgan, that’s also fun.
Final Grade: B-