I need to write a note and put it on my computer so I can look at it every day: “Actors who have been funny in other things will not necessarily be funny together in a different project.” I should have learned my lesson two months ago with Office Christmas Party, a film overflowing with funny actors and almost no laughs. But I never learn, and that’s how I came to Richie Keen’s atrocious Fist Fight, a film that has an amusing premise that gets buried beneath despicable characters and bad jokes. While every single actor in this film has been good in something else, Keen never takes advantage of their talents, and instead saddles them with lame gags and terrible personalities.
Campbell (Charlie Day) and Strickland (Ice Cube) are teachers at a raucous high school. It’s the last day of class, and the senior pranks are out of control. To make matters worse, the school is instituting budget cuts, and Campbell, who has a baby on the way, is worried he’s going to lose his job. After a mishap involving Strickland furiously destroying a student’s desk with a fire ax, the school’s principal (Dean Norris) threatens to fire both teachers unless he gets the truth. The feckless Campbell sells out the rage-fueled Strickland, and Strickland retaliates by promising to fight Campbell at 3pm. Campbell then spends the rest of the school day trying to get out of the fight by any means necessary.
A smarter film would have set up the fight in a more farcical manner so that these two characters remain likable, but their conflict is based on a comic misunderstanding. As it stands, Campbell and Strickland are both awful people, and you don’t want to see either one succeed. Campbell is a gigantic coward who only looks out for himself, and Strickland may put on a tough guy act, but doesn’t admit that he went crazy and used an ax to destroy a desk. So both characters are selfish and cowardly, but Strickland gets to carry a tough guy persona while Campbell’s arc is that he learns to stand up for himself.
Surrounding these two terrible characters on a collision course are a series of jokes that fail to garner any laughs. I’m sure the writers were tickled by the idea that the seniors have given meth to a horse and made it run wild in the school, or that if you douse Tracy Morgan in yellow paint and have him shout, “I look like a minion!” that’s comic gold. But most of the movie is just people screaming swear words at each other. It’s the laziest kind of humor, and a waste of time for everyone involved, including the audience.
At some point, we have to stop falling for this (or at least I have to stop falling for this). Actors want to keep working, and they want to work with actors they admire. I’m sure the people who made Fist Fight had a nice time working with each other, and that’s all well and good. But when you have a cast that also includes Jillian Bell, Kumail Nanjiani, and Christina Hendricks, you have to do better. Everyone in this cast has proven in other films and TV series that they’re funny, charming people who can do a lot when given the right material. Fist Fight gives them nothing.