‘Fist Fight’ Review | See Me After Class, Movie…
The year was 1987, and Phil Joanau’s cult comedy Three O’Clock High was brilliantly updating the western classic High Noon for a modern age. A gang of killers wasn’t coming to shoot Will Kane when the clock struck twelve, but a bully was definitely going to beat the tar out of mild-mannered Jerry Mitchell as soon as school was over. To a kid, those situations might as well be the same thing. Doom was definitely coming. Three O’Clock High changed the setting and the theme and even the genre of High Noon but it kept all of the tension in place. It’s a masterful bit of comedy.
Fist Fight is no Three O’Clock High (and it definitely ain’t High Noon). Like Phil Joanau’s film, it’s about a dweeb who gets challenged to fisticuffs by an intimidating and violent individual, and who does everything in his power to get out of the fight before the bell rings at the end of the school day. But in Richie Keen’s Fist Fight the combatants are both high school teachers, and that’s not so much of a twist on the concept as it is a Gordian Knot.
Charlie Day plays Andy Campbell, a milquetoast english teacher who – like the rest of the staff at his high school – is worried he’s about to get fired because of budget cuts. When he sees a fellow teacher whip out a fire ax and chop a student’s desk in half, Andy tries to keep his mouth shut but ultimately snitches on his co-worker to save his job. This leads the newly fired teacher, Strickland (Ice Cube), to challenge Andy to a fist fight at the end of the day. Hijinks ensue.
The rest of the movie finds Andy trying (and failing) to pull off one scheme after the other in order to cancel the fight. Some of those schemes are more moral and legal than others. Word gets out about the fight and sure enough, when the time comes, everyone in the school is present for his seemingly inevitable mauling. Andy’s friendly co-workers, played by Tracy Morgan and Jillian Bell, are of no help whatsoever but say funny things anyway. There’s a movie there, no doubt about it.
But it’s a movie that makes no sense. High Noon took place in the wild west and Three O’Clock High took place in the wilds of high school, but even in high school the story only works from a teenager’s perspective. It’s easy for conflicts to feel larger than life when you don’t have much life experience. But teachers, even in a broad comedy, don’t have that same warped sense of reality. It sounds like a funny idea to make adults act like teenagers again (watch Howard Hawks’s Monkey Business sometime, it’s outright hilarious) but it requires a leap of imagination. It needs to take place against an environment that supports that silliness.
Fist Fight attempts to create that environment by having the teachers at this school act broadly and ridiculously, but watching a teacher violent assault a student with a fire ax does not set the right tone. It’s such a horrific breach of protocol, and indeed is such a disturbing crime, that the fact that Andy Campbell doesn’t immediately report Strickland to his superiors robs the character of our empathy. He’s so cowardly that he’s willing to risk the safety of his students just to save his own neck. We don’t want him to find his inner courage and step up to the plate. We want both of these people fired.
The film doesn’t deny us laughter – Charlie Day, Ice Cube and (in particular) Jillian Bell are too talented to let that happen – but it denies us quality entertainment. Fight Fight fiddles with its premise until it no longer makes any sense, intellectually or emotionally, and although you could get past that and enjoy the wacky gags in a vacuum there are better ways to spend your time. Like getting in a fist fight.
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William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.