Fist Fight (R)

Review Date: February 20th, 2017

Movies like Fist Fight remind us that, no matter how topsy-turvy things are in the realms of politics, international relations, and government, some constants remain. One of those is that February will bring to theaters its share of godawful, nails-on-the-blackboard painful movies. Fist Fight is one of those. More galling and tedious than funny, this quasi-re-imagining of the 1987 high school film, Three O'Clock High, proves that it's entirely possible for a remake of a bad movie to be worse than its inspiration. Fist Fight is chock full of over-the-top mugging, poorly enacted slapstick, and profanity/vulgarity that's more unnecessary and insulting than side-splitting. To add insult to injury, the movie injects an element of social commentary (about the poor quality of inner city education) into its final reel. This results in a genuine wtf? moment: In a film overflowing with penis jokes and f-bombs (including about a dozen uttered by a 10-year old girl), Fist Fight wants us to contemplate the plight of today's school resulting from underfunding and apathy.

I think we're supposed to root for Charlie Day's nebbish Andy Campbell, an English teacher at Roosevelt High. He's positioned as the protagonist. Unfortunately, Day's screechy, over-the-top performance is so irritating that it's almost impossible to hope for anything other than for him to get beaten to a bloody pulp by Ice Cube's Ron Strickland. Day's portrayal is like vintage Woody Allen on steroids - all tics and whiny line deliveries. It's entirely possible that's why he was hired, that his variety of "comedy" is what director Richie Keen wanted, but it doesn't take long for the viewer to overdose on Day's performance. What might work in a supporting role wears out its welcome fast when the actor is on screen for about 80% of the running time.

It's the last day of school and all the teachers are worried about retaining their jobs for the next year. This includes Andy, whose beloved wife has a baby on the way, and Strickland, who believes in education through harsh discipline. When Strickland has an in-class meltdown and Andy rats him out to Principal Tyler (Dean Norris), a confrontation is inevitable. Strickland decrees that they'll meet at three o'clock on the playground for a fist fight to settle their differences. Andy does everything he can to avoid it but his bungling attempts to prevent the fight merely make it more inevitable.

The only one to escape unscathed from this mess of a movie is Ice Cube, whose no-nonsense performance is perfect for Strickland and is by far the best thing about Fist Fight. The musician-turned-actor plays his part with such unrestrained pugnaciousness that he is funny. This is nothing new for Ice Cube, who is essentially replicating here what he did to terrific effect in 21 Jump Street and 22 Jump Street. Fist Fight also features Tracy Morgan (in his first post-accident role) as the school's coach, Jillian Bell as a creepy guidance counselor who wants to sleep with her male students (once they turn 18), and Amy Adams-lookalike JoAnna Garcia Swisher as Andy's wife.

Sadly, far too much of what currently passes for R-rated motion picture comedy would be equally at home in a junior high school boys' restroom. Kids delight in saying and hearing dirty words. Adults are supposed to have evolved to a point where they find them funny in a specific context but Hollywood apparently thinks it's subversive and hilarious to hear a girl spewing profanity during a grade school talent competition. I could see how this might work but director Keen is as tone deaf about this aspect of comedy as he is about nearly everything else in the film. Every joke in Fist Fight is lazy and predictable. There's not a moment that feels spontaneous or provokes laughter through the surprise of an unexpected zinger. The humor in Fist Fight is stale, repetitive, and unpalatable. With movies like this, we laugh because we're expected to (the jokes are telegraphed so we don't miss them) not because there's comedic genius at work.

There's an art to making bad taste funny instead of merely vulgar. It's not an easy path but it's rewarding. The men and women behind Fist Fight need to keep looking because they haven't found it yet and their ineptitude makes for a trying 90 minutes for those who commit to seeing their failed and unfortunate production.

© 2017 James Berardinelli