Hollywood’s leading movie scowl these days belongs to Ice Cube, though his grimace usually connotes more bark than bite, and is often played for laughs.
Still, I feared for the safety of costar Charlie Day in Fist Fight, a comedy starring the two men as teachers who square off after school for a brawl.
Those fears were justified. Fist Fight ends with a full-on donnybrook, one that had me thinking of George Kennedy and Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke (somebody even yells "Stay down" to the overmatched smaller man), though with enough over-the-top stuntwork (the expansive sequence required 100 hours of filming) to place the whole thing in the context of comedy.
Day plays Andy Campbell, a high school teacher who gives information to the administration that ends up costing colleague Ron Strickland (Cube) his job. The resulting grudge match is a study in contrasts -- Campbell is a soft-spoken pushover, Strickland the sort of fellow who walks the halls with a baseball bat in the tradition of Morgan Freeman (Lean on Me) and James Belushi (The Principal).
Fist Fight pays homage to the high school movies of the 1980s, most notably Three O’Clock High (itself a comic descendant of High Noon). The combatants are teachers, but the plot is essentially the same – a time is set for a fight, and the weaker party tries to find a way out.
Fist Fight nods to the changes in technology/sociology – word of the fight spreads on social media, first in the school, then to the world at large. So Day must battle a larger, fiercer opponent and the ignominy of unwanted internet celebrity.
He has no allies. The students want to see teachers square off, and Day’s shell-shocked public school coworkers (Jillian Bell, Tracy Morgan, and Kumail Nanjiani from Silicon Valley) don’t want to intervene.
It’s a cast of talented comedians, but the supporting players are given little to do – Bell is stuck riffing on the same running joke about her attraction to a senior boy, material that probably would have been red-penciled by studios in the 1980s. With good reason.
The fight itself is actually well-staged – several minutes of inventive physical comedy. The stuff that precedes it – an hour or so of low-hanging raunch -- may leave you feeling more beat-up than upbeat.