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"FIST FIGHT"
(2017) (Ice Cube, Charlie Day) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Comedy: The toughest, meanest teacher at a high school challenges the wimpiest teacher on staff to a fight after he inadvertently gets him fired.
PLOT:
Andy Campbell (CHARLIE DAY) is a rather wimpy English teacher in a tough private high school, who fears the latest round of budget cuts will mean his termination. He has a wife, Maggie (JoANNA GARCIA SWISHER), who is pregnant with their second child and a daughter, Ally (ALEXA NISENSON), who is being bullied at her elementary school and needs her dad to perform with her at her school's talent show.

Andy, though, is having the worst day at school. It's the last day of classes before summer break, and the seniors are pulling non-stop pranks. One of those pranks ends up inadvertently causing Andy to get a fellow teacher, Strickland (ICE CUBE), fired by Principal Tyler (DEAN NORRIS). But Strickland isn't just any ordinary teacher. He is an extremely foul-tempered, violent hulk of a man who challenges Andy to a fistfight after school. News of their impending brawl spreads like wildfire through the school, then across social media.

Andy seeks help from other staff members, including guidance counselor Holly (JILLIAN BELL), who has the hots for the school's top jock; Crawford (TRACY MORGAN), the school's straight-talking gym teacher and football coach; and Ms. Monet (CHRISTINA HENDRICKS), the French teacher who ends up siding with Strickland and plotting Andy's demise. Andy pulls out all the stops to get the fight called off, including enlisting the school's snarky drug-dealing sophomore, Neil (AUSTIN ZAJUR). But his fate seems sealed.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
You might think that a comedy about two teachers who challenge each other to a fight after school might be stretching it a bit. Is there really enough there for a big-screen comedy? In the case of "Fist Fight," I am pleasantly surprised to report that there is! "Fist Fight" is not a great comedy. It's certainly not light on its feet. And it is WAY more profane than it needs to be. But the film has a confidence about it that I quite liked, and it's populated with gifted comic performers who are given some legitimately funny scenes to both stick to the script and improv.

It's the last day of school before summer break. Charlie Day stars as Andy Campbell, the high school's English teacher who most students and staff look at as a wimpy pushover. He's whiny, slight of build, and rarely stands up for himself. He is the direct opposite of Strickland, the hot-headed, spectacularly angry, and very intimidating history teacher Strickland, played by Ice Cube. Unfortunately for both men, the school's seniors are out of control playing pranks on the faculty and school itself. One prank lands both Andy and Strickland in the principal's office, and Andy inadvertently gets Strickland fired.

Strickland is far from the forgiving type and challenges Andy to a fight after school. The winner is the one who isn't knocked unconscious. Andy does his best to get out of the brawl. But word spreads around the school and onto social media, and it suddenly becomes a Main Event-style happening destined to draw hundreds.

"Fist Fight" succeeds because its two leads accept the broad roles they have been asked to play, and they play them to the absolute hilt. Day, previously a third banana in the "Horrible Bosses" flicks, makes the most of his lead role here. He's trying his little A double S off in every scene to the point where you almost fear that the dude is going to stroke out, he's trying so hard. He's like Kermit the Frog getting exasperated with Miss Piggy but for 90-plus minutes straight. It will be hilarious one day to watch his performance on DVD or pay-per-view and use your remote to fast-forward to watch how blurry he gets.

Ice Cube doesn't fare as well. He's basically all glower, all of the time. Day's Andy is given the wife and daughter and rounded character. Strickland is just presented as a one-note physical threat until very late in the film when the script absolutely has to get him to soften. He definitely has a deeper motive for what he lets on in picking the fight and not letting his grudge go. I just wish he had shared it earlier in the film. Nevertheless, it IS Ice Cube. And he does exactly what any reasonable moviegoer would expect Ice Cube to do in this film. He's kind of the 21st century Mr. T.

What also makes "Fist Fight" work is its deep bench of supporting comic talent. Jillian Bell is SO wrong but so funny as a high-school guidance counselor on the make for the hottest seniors about to graduate. Tracy Morgan, meanwhile, gets some terrific one-liners as the school's football coach who tries to help Andy out with his dilemma. In smaller roles, I also enjoyed Kumail Nanjiani as the school's useless security guard and Christina Hendricks as the French teacher with some disturbingly violent thoughts and tendencies.

There's enough that works in "Fist Fight" to make up for the parts that don't work. Again, I'm no prude, but there wasn't any reason to make the dialogue SO unrelentingly profane. And, I wouldn't have worried about this a few years ago when I wasn't a dad to a tween, but the depiction of high schoolers as crude, disinterested borderline criminals made me actively weep for the future. But, in this case, some of those tears were from laughing. I give "Fist Fight" a solid 6 out of 10. (T. Durgin)




Reviewed February 13, 2017 / Posted February 17, 2017


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