Ah yes, the after school fight. It’s been the subject of countless movies and TV shows for decades, played everywhere from deadly serious to completely outrageous. Probably one of the very best examples is the 1987 classic comedy THREE O’CLOCK HIGH, which featured Casey Siemaszko as a nerdy high school kid who had to count down the minutes until his battle with Richard Tyson. It’s one of the few movies that really seemed to capture the frenetic insanity of emotion that would naturally build up to such an event. The new movie FIST FIGHT gives us a slightly different spin on the concept, this time making the two main subjects teachers at the school instead of students.
Andy Campbell (Charlie Day) is a well-meaning English teacher at a rather rough high school, which happens to be carrying out its last day before summer break. The students are using this as an opportunity to prank their instructors, and adding to the stress is Principal Tyler (Dean Norris) firing teachers at the request of the school board, meaning the entire staff is really on edge. Andy is preparing for his wife to give birth to their second child, and is trying to get off work in time to participate in his daughter’s grade school talent show. His work friends Holly (Jillian Bell as an inappropriately horny guidance counselor lusting after her students) and Coach Crawford (Tracy Morgan) seem to have given up on the students and the school in general, but the day gets really interesting when Andy crosses paths with Mr. Strickland (Ice Cube), a scary and temperamental history teacher who isn’t above putting the worst kids of the school in their place. When Strickland loses his cool in front of Campbell and takes a fire axe to a student’s desk, both men wind up in Tyler’s office trying to explain. At first they cover up the incident, but Andy eventually rats out Strickland to protect his own butt, and this prompts Tyler to fire the history teacher for his actions. It also prompts Strickland to tell Campbell that he’s going to fight him after school, and it doesn’t take long for word to spread through the halls. Now Andy must figure out if there’s a way out of this dangerous scenario, while at the same time trying to fulfill his fatherly family duties.
The movie is directed by Richie Keen (IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA), who really seems to embrace some of the more wacky aspects of the proceedings, like the student pranks leading to a horse on meth running through the hallways. The material also fully embraces the R-rating, making the teachers’ words as inappropriate as possible when least expected, and showing the student body as being the very worst they can be. This isn’t just a rough high school, it the school from hell, and these teachers fighting each other seems like an almost natural turn of events. But the underlying point makes sense, in that Strickland is trying to show these students that you have to stand up for yourself when an injustice is done… as if him getting his vengeance will somehow wake these kids up to what’s really going on around them, and perhaps make the school itself better for it.
Charlie Day finds the right beats as our underdog hero, and plays his character well in that he’s never a perfect guy that’s unfairly doomed, rather a fella who could stand to learn a few lessons himself before this is all over. Ice Cube is pretty perfect as the menacing Strickland, portraying that scary teacher we all knew at one point who has crossed over into urban legend territory… no one really knows his back story, but everyone has heard some wild tale that we can all pretty much believe just by looking at him. He’s also somewhat believable because of the setting, as the school is so screwed up it would take instructors like Strickland just to survive it on a day to day basis. It’s great seeing Tracy Morgan back on the big screen, spouting off some nearly-insane dialogue that elevates the comedic levels to a fever pitch when you least expect it. And let’s not discount Jillian Bell, who becomes an unexpected treat as the sexed-up guidance counselor that offers no real help to our hero, but keeps him guessing as to why she behaves the way she does, as well as how she got her job. Kumail Nanjiani has some funny moments as the school security guard, who wants to feel more official than he can ever be but isn’t about to work after hours, and Christina Hendricks plays a hostile French teacher that probably could have been given more to do in the story – in the end her sole purpose seems to be finding Charlie Day’s character to be an annoyance, leading to her cheering on Ice Cube as the fight draws near. Dean Norris feels appropriately cast as the Principal of this destructive den, and JoAnna Garcia Swisher and Alexa Nisenson have some great moments as Andy’s wife and daughter in the story.
But let’s face it, the reason people will watch this movie is to see “the fight” it builds up to, and boy oh boy does it deliver. I didn’t time it, but it manages to go on and on in the best possible way, really rewarding us for the numerous scenes that lead up to it. And yeah, it all ends in a rather predictable and probably too nice and neat fashion, but what a fun ride to get there. Some people have accused the film of being a rip-off of THREE O’CLOCK HIGH (it’s also been referred to as a remake), which oddly enough came out exactly 30 years ago, but FIST FIGHT manages to find its own voice and style, and really does shake things up enough to stand on its own. It may not become a classic the way the other movie did, but it’s an amusing cinematic distraction at a time when we all could use a few laughs.