The first two-thirds of “Fist Fight” play like a Ben Stiller movie from the early 2000s. Our hero is kind but doesn’t assert himself and is perceived to be a loser by everyone around him, including the ones he loves (and supposedly love him). This part of the movie is less fun, because from a filmmaking standpoint (and in life), picking on the 98-pound weakling doesn’t take any courage or risks. When our hero finally sticks up for himself, the movie feeds off his adrenaline and begins to soar, culminating in a rather spectacular finish. The path to the ending is littered with dick jokes, but “Fist Fight” makes the early hardships worthwhile. Just barely, though.
It is the last day of the school year and Andy Campbell (Charlie Day) is a high school English teacher just trying to get through the day so he can help out his daughter at her talent contest. Andy tries to help Mr. Strickland (Ice Cube) get a video started, and when Andy discovers that a student is responsible for the repeated malfunctions, Mr. Strickland loses it, grabbing a weapon from the hallway and terrorizing the students. Andy and Strickland go before the principal, who lays an impossible ultimatum on the two: either one of them confesses or tattles, or they’re both fired. Andy’s wife has already missed her delivery date with their second child, so Andy rats out Strickland to keep his job. Strickland tells Andy that he’s going to fight him after school is out. Andy knows he’s going to get clobbered, so he tries everything he can to back out of it, failing miserably in the process.
This movie has several flaws, but the casting isn’t one of them. There are no two actors on the planet that are better choices for Andy and Strickland than Day and Cube (bonus points for working an N.W.A. song title into his dialogue), and the supporting cast is just as good. Jillian Bell singlehandedly keeps this movie afloat during the Weak Andy segments as the worst guidance counselor ever. Christina Hendricks plays a modestly dressed psychopath of a teacher, while Tracy Morgan plays Tracy Morgan, and there is nothing wrong with that. Alexa Nisenson, who plays Andy’s bullied daughter Ally, also has a late, game-changing moment.
If the writers had approached the other characters the way they approached Bell’s character, this could have been on par with “Horrible Bosses,” which was both outrageous and clever. There are moments of cleverness scattered throughout here as well, but they largely come and go with Bell. Is it possible that she was allowed to punch up her own dialogue? She used to write for “Saturday Night Live,” after all.
It would be great to see genuinely nice people no longer be portrayed as impotent sissies who deserve our scorn, but that could lead to the end of movies like “Fist Fight,” which would be a shame because the film does land a few solid laughs. Still, the ratio of doormats to people who aren’t doormats in real life is much lower than it is in film. Why is that? (Hollywood replies: Because it’s easier, silly.) Think of Andy Campbell as a descendant of Crispin Glover’s George McFly. Does the world really need another one of those? Andy could have still been Andy without being so incredibly, maddeningly Andy. Add some shades of gray to that black and white screenplay and this is a much better movie.