One of the greatest services a comedy can provide is to let its performers be unbridled. Give talented actors the chance to play to their purest strengths and you’re already well on your way to an entertaining time at the movies. The biggest risk with that move is that without reins on either story or performer, things can get out of hand in a hurry. “Fist Fight,” the latest buddy comedy starring Charlie Day and Ice Cube, stands firmly on the other side of that divide. Even though it’s able to play to some of the strengths of its central characters, by the time the film arrives at its advertised confrontation, the story limps along when it should be hard-charging.
From the movie’s outset, Andy Campbell (Day) and Ron Strickland (Ice Cube) are set up as convenient opposites. Campbell is an English teacher, pottering around high school hallways, while Strickland is the imposing history teacher with a fiery insistence on classroom order. (You can guess which one knows the intricacies of the break room cappuccino-maker and which one literally shouts his demands for coffee at the machine.)
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When an incident on the last day of school leaves Strickland’s class in chaos (right at the moment when Campbell just happens to drop by), the two are questioned about their involvement. Facing almost-certain firing, Campbell gives up Strickland as the culprit. Now out of a job and holding Campbell responsible, Strickland challenges his counterpart to a parking lot throwdown in full view of the outgoing student body.
If this seems like a flimsy premise for a half-hour episode of a TV show, it’s because “Fist Fight” continuously plays like an R-rated sitcom. It’s a parade of thinly-drawn characters, existing merely in service of the cast’s greatest hits. Tracy Morgan gets a chance to deliver his trademark touch on the word “pregnant.” Day gets to show off a steady stream of Campbell’s squirrelly insecurities. As the campus security guard, Kumail Nanjiani offers up his reliable brand of dry incredulity as the school order around him crumbles.
It’s hard not to watch this film and think of HBO’s recent series “Vice Principals,” a similar tale of faculty members at odds with each other to a ludicrous degree. While some viewers took issue with how the show engaged with the power dynamics of a public high school, at least “Vice Principals” had enough on its mind to ground the protagonists’ petty escalations in something beyond a blatant parade of testosterone. Here, the only reason for conflict is deliver a product as advertised.
In light of these missed opportunities, “Fist Fight” does the biggest disservice to Ice Cube, who has shown in other venues — like the Lord/Miller “21 Jump Street” movies — that he can balance out an angry scowl with some authority that comes from something other than brute force. Here, when Strickland is literally made into an animal with a superimposed lion growl, it’s a dumbed-down insult to someone worthy of a better chance to demonstrate his comedic range.
Not helping matters is the labyrinthine plot of weird contrivances and one-upmanship happening from all sides of Campbell’s life. Playing out mostly over a single day, this ends up as a “bad day getting worse” story that loses satisfaction with each unnecessary added layer. A pregnant wife, a daughter with an all-important talent show performance and the impending threat of severe bodily harm turns Campbell into a man of meager desperation and a conduit for increasingly stupid decisions.
Also lost in the shuffle are the students: hormonal robots who have their “Rebellion” sliders pushed up to 12 in the face of a largely indifferent faculty. They end up as disposable pawns, just as much as Jillian Bell’s guidance counselor feels like a delivery system for “edgy” jokes about affairs with students and Christina Hendricks’ character is introduced as a object of desire for burgeoning male libidos. (Both of them are the best they can be, saddled with reductive material. Like Ice Cube, they’re performers who deserve far more than they’re given to work with here.)
Then comes the point where the film delivers on the promise of its title. It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that the climactic showdown suffers from the same overstatement plaguing much of the film. Viewed by a school population that rivals the size of a Scandinavian nation, it’s a comically outrageous brawl that is obviously unconcerned with existing felony laws, six-figure amounts of property damage, and the relative safety of many internal organs. All of it is delivered with pointless “man up” overtones, a murky takeaway from such an unfocused slog.
And the film has essentially given up even before it gets to that point. By the time Campbell breathlessly races to an Apple store after bumping into his wife at a shopping plaza, the movie’s gone so far afield of anything close to tethered human behavior that there’s no recognizable consequences from which to draw any satisfying tension. In this way, “Fist Fight” succumbs to a typical plot-based paradox that plagues so many studio comedies: only a movie like this could give keep its characters so busy and have it all feel so lazy.
“Fist Fight” opens nationwide on Friday, February 17.