Fist Fight doesn’t need much of a breakdown. Charlie Day and Ice Cube are teachers. Charlie Day offends Ice Cube. Ice Cube wants to beat his ass for it after school in the parking lot. Charlie Day will do anything to weasel out of it until he realizes that he can’t, at which point he goes all in, in the way Charlie Day does.
That’s the movie. It doesn’t sound like much, but when I buy tickets for R-rated comedies that sell themselves on raunch, chaos, and all-around bad behavior, it’s because I’m looking for a movie that delivers exactly the way Fist Fight does.
Now, there’s context to what happens, and it does, in fact, matter. Andy Campbell (Day) and Ron Strickland (Cube) work at an underfunded and horribly mismanaged school. It’s the last day, which usually means Senior Pranks, but all the mismanagement has turned these kids into little bastards; “dick drawings everywhere” are the least of the school’s problems on this final day. Only Mr. Strickland seems able to control them, but he’s on his last nerve…which snaps after one of his students fucks with his AV setup, causing him to assault the student on a day when teachers are already getting fired left and right because of further budget cuts.
The student doesn’t talk, fearing reprisal. Mr. Campbell, on the other hand, was a witness, and the second Principal Tyler (Dean Norris) drops them into a Prisoner’s Dilemma, Campbell—thinking of his pregnant wife (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) and adorable daughter (Alexa Niesenson)—immediately rats on Strickland. Snitches get stitches, so “Parking lot. After school. It’s on.” News of the fight goes viral, bringing Mr. Campbell closer to a nervous breakdown as he desperately tries to get out of it.
It’s not a bulletproof narrative backbone, but it’s just solid enough to be workable while the jokes carry the rest. The characters are thinly-veiled approximations of the actors playing them, particularly Cube. Early in the movie, there’s a fantasy sequence explaining his rumored backstory, which shows Cube as a former gangbanger, a badass marine, and a rogue cop; all roles you’d instantly think of Cube for. On top of that, the script isn’t afraid to let him say “Fuck tha police” and “You got knocked the fuck out” in the same movie. That might seem corny, but you’re being blitzed with so many other jokes and set pieces, most of them stemming from the lack of shits given by the graduating class, that it plays as one more fun thing rather than a desperate attempt to remind you of who’s starring in this movie.
That’s the thing about Fist Fight: it is a balls-out joke delivery system. Director Richie Keen (who worked on several episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, as well as the hysterical pilot for Teachers), working from a script by relative newbies Van Robichaux and Evan Susser (with a story assist from Max Greenfield, aka Schmidt on New Girl), gives it just enough dramatic heft for the film to function as a story and not an ounce more. Nobody in this film is going to monologue about the importance of pride while emotional music swells in the background. However, Keen knows that you know that Campbell has to learn something from this experience, and he likes to walk the character right up to the edge of a breakthrough before letting Day double down hilariously on his character’s cowardly nature.
Everything in this movie—everything—is building to one gag or another, and if you think that sounds exhausting, technically you’re right. There’s a five-minute stretch at the end of the second act where you can feel the movie get tired, but then it finds a second wind and rockets across the finish line. One reason Fist Fight stays so consistent is that, at 90 minutes, it’s too lean to really wear out its welcome. Another is that it’s further backed up by power hitters like Tracy Morgan (as an inept coach) and Jillian Bell (as an irresponsible guidance counselor). Bell’s casual insanity is a particularly amazing match for Day’s manic energy; the movie is already on fire for most of its runtime, but when Bell’s on the job, it stops cooking with gas and starts using phosphorus. It’s the titular fist fight that puts the film over the top, though. It’s as funny as you’d hope it would be, but it’s also a damn impressive action scene with beats that look like they really hurt, and it does a great job of cementing the modest emotional heft the film was after.
Look, I can try to tie this to a statement about How We Treat Our Teachers In America. I can point out the inversion of the classic bully vs. nerd scenario (which we haven’t seen in awhile, because bullies these days aren’t as interested in public shows of force). I can probably even talk about the Savage Steve Holland-esque way that the film’s universe constantly conspires against Day’s character and pushes him toward this confrontation. It’s all noise, though. Do you like Charlie Day as a weaselly, hyperactive nerd? Do you like Ice Cube as a dude who’s always a broken shoelace away from popping off? Do you want to see them circle each other hilariously for an hour and change before throwing down in a satisfying climax? Good, because that’s what it says on Fist Fight‘s tin, and that’s exactly what you get and a little more.