There are a lot of R-rated comedies coming out these days that float along on a sea of F-bombs and bad behavior without ever truly getting their hands dirty. Seth Rogen-Evan Goldberg jams offer a nice ideal for how comedies can mine significant laughter from being raunchy, but so many of these movies are too self-satisfied with swearing to actually worry about crafting jokes.
Starring Ice Cube and Horrible Bosses co-star Charlie Day, Fist Fight looked to be one of these latter comedies in its lead to release, the kind of film it seemed maybe Jason Bateman was too busy for*. And while it’s ultimately not too far removed from its ilk, Fist Fight deserves a spot just above these other films.
The trailers serve the simple premise well. Charlie Day is a sneaky, cowardly teacher who runs afoul of a super intimidating Ice Cube, who decides he’s going to beat Day’s ass in the parking lot right after the last day of school concludes (he has his reasons). Day has to get out of this while also doing lame movie stuff like protecting his at-risk job and not letting his bratty daughter down.
The film absolutely nails creating the school that surrounds this story. It is a genuinely nasty place, just short of the kind of apocalyptic high school you might see in a Troma movie or something from the ‘80s. Kids rule the entire campus: they lock TVs playing pornos in the trophy locker, openly jerk off in bathrooms, sell drugs, give those drugs to horses to terrorize the hallways, freely curse at their teachers and deface their principal’s car with impressive meticulousness. Most importantly, they all appear to be regular, middle-class kids, which places the film in a world where absolutely everything is fucked up rather than just some rough neighborhood.
This setting provides important context to the whole Fist Fight premise. Suddenly everything is more believable and easier to take in, which grants it greater license for exaggerated comedy. Of course, Ice Cube can threaten to fight a guy without repercussion in a world where a guidance counselor can be a pedophiliac meth-head and the French teacher walks around with a butterfly knife.
The MVP of the film, of course, is Ice Cube, playing the most out of his intimidating nature and excellent way with swear words. His Strickland is a cartoon of ridiculous anger at all times, but he’s also the only character with any kind of principles and beliefs. He and Charlie Day more or less take turns being likable throughout the film.
And if you know anything about movies, it should be obvious that the only real arc here is going to be one about Day’s character getting pushed too far and finally finding his courage. Sure enough, that’s exactly what happens, but Day saves it from being trite. While he does spend most of the film doing his overly nervous schtick, seeing it give into rage (and fans of It’s Always Sunny know this guy can do rage) is very satisfying.
Also satisfying: the fight. I no longer put it below Hollywood to make a comedy about a fist fight and then resolve things before the fight actually happens, or maybe just end the fight “comically” with one big hit. Fist Fight instead gives us a long, satisfying battle, thereby making good on the promise of its premise. Maybe that’s a low bar, but lately it feels like a lofty goal for a high-profile 90-minute comedy. I walked into Fist Fight not expecting much and walked out with a smile on my face and mild lacerations.
*Phil gets credit for that line.