Fist Fight looks stupid because it is stupid, but Charlie Day is irresistible and Ice Cube has an undeniable talent for intimidation. It turns out that the two of them working together as teachers isn’t a far-fetched premise. The titular fist fight occurs between two teachers, Mr. Campbell (Day) and Mr. Strickland (Cube), because Mr. Campbell gets Mr. Strickland fired.
Mr. Strickland is known for being a bit scary, and Mr. Campbell for being a nice guy, but kind of a pushover. It’s the last day of high school where they work, and is the annual Senior Prank Day. This is not any sort of casual one-off prank like what occurs at my high school; it’s a series of cruel, humiliating, and increasingly elaborate pranks against any available person. A horse trots through the hallways, baby oil slicks up another corridor, and students somehow get the principal’s car inside the school and vandalize it. When Mr. Strickland sees Mr. Campbell in the hallway, he approaches him while mean-mugging like a wrestler, but it’s really because Campbell almost walked into a trip wire linked to a paint trap. Teachers need to stick together.
Strickland requests Campbell’s help with his VCR—the school refuses to fund a DVD player—that keeps turning off on its own. Campbell deduces that it’s a student with a smart phone app that acts as a remote control that is messing with the playback and points out the culprit to Strickland, who throws the phone against the chalkboard (Campbell’s classroom has whiteboards but Strickland’s has chalk, coincidence? I think not). Another student dares the first to do it again using her phone: he does, Campbell watches him do it, and rats him out again. This time Strickland leaves the classroom and returns with a fire axe. Since this is a comedy, the only people who are supposed to get hurt aren’t students, so he doesn’t kill the kid, but he does get fired.
The school is doing massive budget cuts and removing teacher positions left and right, so all the teachers and faculty are already on guard about their positions. The principal made it clear that one of them would be losing their jobs on that day, and it would be whoever was responsible for the axe incident, so Campbell, whose wife is due to deliver their second child within hours, rats out Strickland.
Now think about this. Strickland was obviously wrong. He was never kind, and was often rude, but was obviously a teacher invested in the act of education. His enforcement was far from standard and his resting mean face doesn’t help his pit bull attitude. The principal put the two teachers against each other purposefully, rather than pull them in individually to hear their stories, and to hear from the students involved. That is an unfair way to handle the situation. Rather than allow Strickland to come forward himself, he puts them against each other like animals. Snitches get stitches.
It’s no wonder Strickland loses it and wants to take Campbell outside. Neither of them had a choice, and Strickland is never developed as a person outside of his anger issues and “teaching goals.” Other teachers speculate to his past—he was in the military as an infiltrator, no, he was a gang member, he’s a musical prodigy with a major ‘tude, he was a cop—none of which excuse his behavior, but all are proposed as an explanation. Does he have a violent past or is he ill? Does he have a family? Friends? None of this is answered outside of his affinity for Ken Burns and violence. Ice Cube always does well with his material, but it is disappointing that he continues to land roles that are based on negative male stereotypes, especially black men.
Charlie Day also does well with his material here, though he is given much more than Cube. Campbell goes on a hero’s devolution, going from the cowardly English teacher to the unpredictable wild card that manifests in his elementary-age daughter during a funny sequence. Perhaps the frustration and anger that Strickland feels was in Campbell all along, and Strickland’s constant pushing of Campbell towards the edge of sanity wasn’t too far of a stretch.
The film’s juvenile humor is at times groan-worthy, but some audience members may find the storyline involving the guidance counselor-on-meth unsettling. The counselor (played with gusto by Jillian Bell) is often very funny, but her desire for relations with her male high school students is less funny and more uncomfortable. Her counterpart, the gym coach (Tracy Morgan), is a welcome breath of weird, but he still somehow comes across as more level than most of the other faculty. When Tracy Morgan plays one of the sanest adults around, you know there’s a problem.
By the end of the film’s quick 90 minutes, you’ll probably forget a lot of things, because the fist fight is, surprisingly, worth the wait. It’s a massive and well-choreographed event that satisfies whichever side you may fall on, be it Campbell’s, Strickland’s, or that of the student’s. The fight is chaos personified if that’s your jam, but don’t expect there to be a Fist Fight 2.