Fist Fight (previously titled – up until very recently – Teacher Fight, which I like better), wasn’t the first movie I wanted to see, this weekend, but that’s how it worked out due to the timing of them at my local theater. The premise is silly and simple: one teacher (Ice Cube’s Mr. Strickland) gets mad at another teacher (Charlie Day’s Mr. Campbell, and I won’t say why) and then challenges him to a fist fight in the parking lot after school in a show of bravado that is more typical for their supposedly-less-mature students. It’s not a premise that is very believable but it’s really not supposed to be. This is a screwball comedy that makes promises and then follows through on them.
Much like last week’s The LEGO Batman Movie, Fist Fight is a film that’s marketed as a pure comedy and is also actually funny. Those are few and far between (usually the dramedies deliver more sincere laughs than the supposed comedies), but to have two already in 2017 is hopefully a good sign for the year to come! Everyone involved in the film really comes together to make it all work. Of course, this movie isn’t a transformative experience for the soul, like many of the films that are up for awards at next weekend’s Oscars. But it’s a fun, entertaining time at the movies for anyone (17 and older – in mind as well as in body) who might need to forget the reality of their lives for about 90 minutes.
Charlie Day and Ice Cube share top billing, but Day’s Mr. Campbell is unquestionably the film’s lead and protagonist. Mr. Campbell is a sad little man, always the doormat for anyone else who exudes any confidence in life. But he takes it all in stride, just getting through his days and heading home to his pregnant wife and daughter. Mr. Strickland is the opposite. He’s the school’s Scary Teacher. Everyone fears him, including the other employees.
In reality, neither of these men would likely have their jobs. Campbell is walked all over by the students and Strickland is constantly one hair away from hurting someone. And this is the problem; cuts are being made and it’s the worst time for problems between the two to arise.
Day and Cube are honestly typecast in their roles, but so what? They’re each made for these kind of parts and they play them perfectly. Day’s comic timing is impeccable and Cube does “mean” as well as anyone. They’re supported by a sharp script and a game director in Richie Keen, making his feature film debut. Keen honed his skills on such television shows as “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”, “Angie Tribeca”, and “The Goldbergs”, so he has credible experience and it shows.
I was probably most impressed by the film’s script. Yes, there is some surprising character growth at play, here, but – as appreciated as it is – that’s neither necessary nor unheard of. It does add a level of investment for Mr. Campbell that helps the film’s ultimate payoff, but that isn’t the script’s high point.
The most surprising element of the script is what I said, earlier: it’s actually funny. And it’s both written and delivered in such expert fashion that I was finding myself laughing at types of humor that usually do nothing for me. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of wit and intelligence in the one-liners and dialogue, but there’s more to the movie than that. There’s obviously some slapstick, but it’s slapstick that makes sense within the framework of the story. And it’s funny because of when, why, and how it happens, not just because it’s happening. And there’s shock humor, but the shock is coupled with other elements that make it work on additional levels besides it’s-funny-because-they’re-saying-a-bunch-of-inappropriate-things-that-people-don’t-usually-say. A lot of this humor centers around a colleague of our leads, Jillian Bell’s Holly. And she’s great. But my absolute favorite scene is also technically founded upon shock humor, and doesn’t involve Holly. But the context of it, who it comes from, and how it’s presented and portrayed puts it over the top and it’s my favorite scene in any film, so far in 2017. I won’t give you any clues regarding the content or placement of said scene, because the element of surprise is paramount to its effectiveness. But even if I had hated the rest of the film (which I obviously didn’t), this one scene would have been worth the cost of my ticket.
I keep waiting for a 2017 film to really disappoint me. Many of them have been poorly-reviewed, including this one. And the aforementioned The LEGO Batman Movie is the only one I’ve seen, so far, that is likely to stand a shot at making my year-end list of favorites. But Fist Fight was far better than I expected and also far better than it has any right to be. My biggest complaint is the name change. All throughout the film, the impending “Teacher Fight” is referred to. Why change the film’s title from that to “Fist Fight”? The branding was in place and it presents a much more accurate picture of what the film actually is. Don’t second guess yourselves, Hollywood, and don’t fix something that isn’t broken! I’m a teacher! I wasn’t offended! You should have stuck with Teacher Fight!
Other than that, if you need a laugh, you’ll find it in Fist Fight. It’s a comedy that’s confident enough to be crude without using its crassness as a crutch. The film refuses to be a one-trick pony and offers multiple styles of humor with each of them being delivered with expertise. If you saw the trailers or TV spots and thought you might like it, you almost certainly will. You might even love it.
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