Charlie Day and Ice Cube face off in the feeble Fist Fight

No matter how many fucks and meth jokes you put in them, they’re still lame—those schmaltzy, nugget-of-non-wisdom life-lesson arcs that middling studio comedies force audiences to endure in exchange for whatever laughs were already in the trailer. Did anyone buy a ticket to Central Intelligence, Office Christmas Party, Sex Tape, or any other randomly picked title because they really wanted to see the characters learn to stand up for themselves, put family and friends first, or get that promotion? Only a masochist would. But the rule still holds that, in broad terms, the mainstream of film comedy consists of indifferently formulaic, atrociously paced family and work dramas in which the characters are always stopping to talk about what just happened. Often, there are jokes, but through a critic’s They Live glasses, they all read as, “Look at the thing. Buy Apple products.” Or, “I am a supporting character with no social filter. Blurt, blurt, blurt. Time for drugs.”

Fist Fight, which stars Ice Cube and Charlie Day as feuding schoolteachers, is no different in this respect, and can’t be accused of anything beyond an industry-wide shoddiness. It’s set on the last day of school at a cash-strapped high school in the Atlanta suburbs, where graduating seniors have a tradition of playing elaborate pranks (an idea that yields surprisingly few gags), the faculty ranges from buffoonish to psychotic, and nobody sounds like they’re from the South. After the nebbishy English teacher Mr. Campbell (Day) gets the short-tempered, prank-hating history teacher Mr. Strickland (Cube) fired to protect his own job amid budget cuts, Strickland challenges him to a fight in the school parking lot. With shades of the ’80s teen comedy Three O’Clock High, Campbell spends the day trying to weasel his way out of this 3 p.m. appointment.

It’s a quintessential latter-day studio comedy, in that the premise gets completely lost in self-actualization subplots that nobody (filmmakers included) gives two shits about and that the characters do a lot of pointing. Sometimes it’s the incredulous “Who, me?” point-to-self, sometimes it’s the “Over there!” or the “I’m on to you.” Nowhere is the index finger wielded as indiscriminately as it is in lackluster comedies. Fist Fight basically has two good gags: the tireless mariachi band hired by pranking seniors to follow the principal (Dean Norris) around and the sheer amount of bodily harm inflicted in the eventual showdown between Campbell and Strickland. The rest depends on the presumably improvised ramblings of assorted kooks: a golf-cart-driving security guard (Kumail Nanjiani), an incompetent coach (Tracy Morgan, with noticeable post-accident scars), and a guidance counselor (Jillian Bell) with a meth habit and the mind-set of a sexual predator.

Bell’s spun advisor ends up making a better foil than the glowering, one-note Strickland, a character who is somehow less well-developed than the broad parody of hardass black police captain stock types that Cube played in 21 Jump Street and its sequel. Day’s Campbell, however, has the misfortune of being the straight man protagonist, which means that he must learn to stand up for himself, become a better husband and father, and overcome embarrassment at a talent show (at a different school, no less) before he finally trades blows with his rival. In there, he also finds time to make a trip to the Apple store, attempt to frame Strickland for drug dealing, and get arrested and released without his boss noticing. He also has a due-any-minute pregnant wife (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) and financial troubles, though nothing that happens in Fist Fight suggests any relationship to the realities of money or the human body, or even the basic rules of space and time. But who cares, right?

The fact is that moviegoers deserve a better class of comedy, or at least movies that aren’t composed of one part recycled three-act filler and one part vamping. As is too often the case, there are the makings of a diverting comedy in here: the pranks, the pathologically inept teachers and school staff, the more-than-capable cast. But they’re executed with a minimum of inspiration and packaged in conventions that are neither sincere nor funny—ironic for a movie whose characters are constantly complaining about substandard materials and cut corners.

Photo: Warner Bros.

Film Review: ‘Fist Fight’

Charlie Day and Ice Cube do their part to lower the collective IQ of American audiences in this regrettable schoolyard showdown.

It’s the last day of school at Roosevelt High, and two disgruntled teachers decide to duke it out after the final bell rings in “Fist Fight,” a risible excuse for comedy that treats compulsory education as a joke and violence as a reasonable way to solve problems. In other words, it’s a film perfectly calibrated for the times in which we live, and by far the most disheartening studio-produced movie in recent memory, setting an abysmal example for anyone who goes to school (or the movies, for that matter) still hoping to learn.

Listen carefully, and you can practically hear your brain cells dying during the course of “Fist Fight,” whose principal agenda seems to be how outrageously out-of-control things get at Roosevelt. Anarchy already has the upper hand when idealistic English teacher Andy Campbell (Charlie Day) arrives on campus to discover what the students have perpetrated on this most epic of Senior Prank Days — a dubious tradition in which the inmates are granted control of the asylum, so to speak.

In addition to letting a meth-addled horse loose through the halls of the school, the junior practical jokers have Sharpied explicit cartoons on the dry-erase boards, mowed degrading images into the football field, and rigged pornography to play in the school trophy case. “Why aren’t they this ambitious with their classwork?” asks Campbell, though the answer is clear: These retrograde gags are the stunted brain children of screenwriters Van Robichaux and Evan Susser, whose combined intellect still hasn’t graduated past junior high, where they see women teachers as sex objects (Christina Hendricks embodies their idea of the hot French teacher, who sashays through the halls in slow motion) and the racist typecasting of former N.W.A. rapper Ice Cube as a golden opportunity to drop the line, “Fuck tha police!”

The F-word is by far the most ubiquitous in this profane R-rated parade, which turns on the premise that the kids — disrespectful, drug-dealing, class-cutting, chronic-masturbating little heathens that they are — have pushed the faculty to the breaking point. Ice Cube plays Mr. Strickland, a scary, pointy-bearded disciplinarian who dresses like someone asked him to add a necktie to his “Boyz N the Hood” uniform. When the students are this unruly, the teachers have to stick together, though Campbell draws the line at an incident he witnesses in Strickland’s classroom, when his angry colleague responds to a disruptive student (Austin Zajur, “Delinquent”) by grabbing the ax from its in-case-of-emergency case in the hall and aggressively chopping his desk into splinters.

Clearly, there are scarier things than grizzlies for Department of Education highest bidder Betsy DeVos to worry about in America’s public schools. In what passes for a critique of our already-underfunded system, the filmmakers include a subplot where the school principal (Dean Norris of “Breaking Bad”) has chosen the last day of school to terminate most of the staff. Fearing for his own job, Campbell snitches on Strickland (it’s unfortunate how many of the clichés borrow from prison movies), and in turn, Ice Cube’s character — who amounts to a one-dimensional African-American stereotype — challenges his sniveling white colleague to an old-fashioned fist fight in the parking lot after school.

Campbell has no idea how to handle the threat: He gets nowhere with Roosevelt High’s resident security guard (Kumail Nanjiani) and is laughed off the line by the 911 operator, so he seeks advice from the school’s criminally unqualified guidance counselor, Holly (Jillian Bell), who is far too distracted talking about how badly she covets a jocky student’s teen penis (or “teenis”) to be of much help. It’s a profoundly inappropriate line of humor, and a disappointing misuse of the improv-gifted ex-Groundling: After so hilariously stealing the show in “22 Jump Street,” Bell sees her latest role reduced to a misdemeanor.

Equally under-exploited is Tracy Morgan as Coach Crawford, proud defender of the school’s unbroken losing streak. In his first big-screen role since his accident, Morgan is mostly just there to serve as the butt of several senior pranks, though he doubles as a sounding board for Campbell’s bad ideas. Because “Fist Fight” was spearheaded Richie Keen, who helmed nearly a dozen episodes of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” the director already has a rapport with his star, Day, who delivers what amounts to a whinier version of the spineless white guy schtick so often embodied by Jason Bateman these days.

Though his constant sniveling is hard on the ears, Day manages to remain a mostly sympathetic character, even when resorting to extremely unsportsmanlike tactics: trying to plant drugs in Strickland’s classroom, using a fire hydrant in the final throwdown. The movie’s premise is that guys like this might actually benefit from a good fight, and that bullying should be confronted by any means necessary (the film’s biggest — and most obvious — laugh owes to a parental-advisory moment at his daughter’s talent show, in which child actress Alexa Nisenson shows her screen dad how to be assertive).

But “Fist Fight’s” underlying philosophy is all wrong. It’s humor derives from welcoming unwelcome behavior into the school sphere, and from allowing conflict to escalate far beyond any reasonable extreme. Call it “Welcome to the Blackboard Jungle” or “Goodbye, Mr. Cube” — the movie may have been hatched in open defiance of the inspirational-teacher genre, but it’s effectively plagiarizing from a different playbook, already beaten to a pulp by such no-class comedies as “School for Scoundrels” and “Vice Principals.”

Review: Ice Cube and Charlie Day Face Off in ‘Fist Fight’

I’ll be honest with you. I was in a pretty foul mood when I went to see “Fist Fight.” It was Wednesday. It was February. It was 2017. And while I can’t exactly say that the movie cheered me up, it did give me something I needed. Not catharsis or uplift but a bracing dose of profane, sloppy, reasonably well-directed hostility. We take what we can get.

The movie, directed by Richie Keen from a script by Van Robichaux and Evan Susser, breaks no new ground. It’s a bad-teacher comedy about a school staffed with stock figures played by reliable performers. There’s a grouchy principal (Dean Norris), a horny guidance counselor (Jillian Bell), a dweeby security guard (Kumail Nanjiani), a nutty football coach (Tracy Morgan) and a femme fatale French instructor (Christina Hendricks). They provide a Greek chorus of goofiness behind the main conflict, which is between Mr. Campbell (Charlie Day), an anxious English teacher, and his profoundly irritable colleague, Mr. Strickland (Ice Cube), whose subject is history.

Ice Cube brings his own history to the project, at one point quoting a famously inflammatory N.W.A lyric and glancing back to the days when, as one of my colleagues put it, “everyone was scared” of him. Campbell certainly is, especially after a series of misunderstandings leads Strickland to challenge him to the after-school face-off that gives the movie its name.

A bit of context: It’s the last day of school, and the seniors are pulling pranks — involving a horse, paintball guns and a lot of penis graffiti — at the Atlanta high school where the two adversaries work. This provides an extra dollop of slapstick chaos, but the kids are peripheral to the movie’s main interest, which is in the mismatch and implicit bromance between Ice Cube and Mr. Day. Each one does what he’s expected to do. Mr. Day twitches and babbles and blinks his eyes rapidly. Ice Cube bellows and glowers and doesn’t blink at all.

There is an obvious racial dimension to their conflict, though “Fist Fight” tiptoes around it, winking and whispering, with typical big-studio timidity. (The most recent season of the HBO comedy “Vice Principals” came closer to touching the hot core of resentment in a Southern public school setting.) And it is certainly possible to interpret this movie as yet another fable of a white man’s redemption at the hands (or fists, as the case may be) of a black man. We know that Campbell has a young daughter (Alexa Nisenson) and a pregnant wife (JoAnna Garcia Swisher). We learn nothing at all about Strickland, except that he is the subject of wild legends among the student body. His job in the movie is to teach Campbell some hard lessons about being a man.

All of which is fairly tiresome. But it’s also possible to read “Fist Fight” against the interracial buddy-movie grain, seeing Strickland rather than Campbell as the protagonist, and taking Strickland’s anger as a principled response to circumstances rather than as evidence of a mood disorder. The big fight takes place against a background of layoffs and budget cuts. The teachers are harassed by the students and undermined by the administration, yet they persist in the work of education. Strickland is an agent not of guilty racial fear but of righteous class consciousness. The lesson he imparts to Campbell is one of public-sector workers’ solidarity. By all evidence, he’s a pretty good teacher, with good reason to stay mad. Which cheered me up, I must say.

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