Director: Richie Keen
Stars: Charlie Day, Ice Cube
3 (out of 5) Globes
Not even escapism is escapism anymore. Imagine going to see the new, silly comedy in which Ice Cube wants to beat up little Charlie Day. You know they play fellow teachers. You know their tussle will happen once the day’s final bell rings. Still, you assume a light entertainment set at a high school will provide a kind of safe space — a therapeutic respite from the constant John Wick-style headshots that are news notifications hitting your phone.
Then you see that our protagonists aren’t just stupid man-children brawling over a silly tiff. They’re tragic figures. Their school is underfunded and poorly managed. Their paychecks are lousy. The kids don’t pay attention. And all of a sudden — maybe while Day is being dragged around on a rope attached to a horse that’s high on meth (long story) — you’re thinking that Betsy DeVos, our incoming Education Secretary, isn’t going to fix this mess. She’s going to make it worse.
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This was never how “Fist Fight” wanted to be seen. It’s not a political film, nor even a “movie of the moment” — that new term for innocent films that suddenly seem topical in light of current events. It’s a distraction with a pinky toe in reality. And to its credit it knows how to distract. The plot may sound familiar. Indeed, it’s a semi-remake of the 1987 comedy “Three O’Clock High,” in which a nerd spends his day sweating over a duel with a bully. That “Fist Fight” changes our pair to teachers is one of the better and more sophisticated jokes in a film stuffed with them: Our era is so infantilized that even the adults are children.
Most of the jokes are stupid, puerile, and gleefully so. It gets a lot of mileage from being set on the last day of school, when students go all out with pranks and mischief. The awards display is filled with porn. Kids mow penis shapes onto the football field. The harried principal (Dean Norris) spends the day followed around by a mariachi band. Amidst this madness Day’s Mr. Campbell — a rare chance for the actor to play the lone sane person, at least until he loses it — accidentally enrages Cube’s Mr. Strickland: a history teacher who prefers to do his lessons holding a baseball bat. He’s had enough of a job that’s somehow doing worse than journalism, and when he snaps, it’s the ineffectual, powerfully mediocre Campbell who might have to pay.
Campbell’s attempts to stop the fight — trying to plant drugs in Strickland’s classroom, tricking a towering inmate into beating him up in a jail cell (another long story) — aren’t always inspired, and the movie loses some gas en route to its epic non-anti-climax of a smackdown. But it’s always fast on its feet, and always has capable ringers, particularly Jillian Bell as a guidance counselor who openly lusts after some of her students. It doesn’t do right by Christina Hendricks, who’s so under-used as a loopy French teacher she doesn’t even get a token bit in the wan post-credits blooper reel. But despite talk of teachers buying school supplies and low wages, “Fist Fight” winds up passing its modest assignment: It takes your mind off everything — you know, except for Betsy DeVos.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge