An Early Contender For Worst Of 2017 Emerges In "Fist Fight"

The trailers and TV spots for Charlie Day-Ice Cube collaboration “Fist Fight” have sold the film as a low-hanging laugher; the kind of half-assed comic lark that requires no one – not cast, not crew, not audience – to exert any brain power.

Somehow, someway, this modest ad campaign was an enormous oversell.

Helmed by actor and TV director Richie Keen, the movie exists to pit high school English teacher Andy Campbell (Day) against history instructor Ron Strickland (Cube) in a parking lot brawl. As screenwriters Evan Susser and Van Robichaux spend 70 minutes huffing and puffing their way through nonsensical narrative hoops to get us there, we are treated to ten times as many references to student-teacher sex as actual laughs. Then there are the charmless shout-outs to meth, public masturbation, and murder by knife – because what’s funnier than school violence? – each as frantically unfunny as the last.

Day and Cube are skilled performers, as evidenced by their cross-media ubiquity. But here they’re not even tasked with characters – only self-parody. The former screams, the latter snarls, moviegoers suffer in silence.

Wonderfully gifted comedians Jillian Bell, Tracy Morgan, and Kumail Nanjiani are left to wallow in droopy-eyed supporting roles unbefitting of C-movie actors. Most regrettably, the worst turn is left to 10-year-old Alexa Nisenson as Ally Campbell, Andy’s daughter. The young actress gets one big scene, in which she and Day subject an elementary school talent show audience to a karaoke performance of Big Sean’s “I Don’t Fuck With You.” Through no fault of its pre-teen headliner, the scene is an absolutely lethal combination of comic desperation, shameless derivation (see: the climactic scene in 2006’s “Little Miss Sunshine”), and general mortification for all parties – moviegoers above all.

And yet, for all its wild bat swings at various taboos, the project has no identifiable edge. Its premise is not far removed from HBO’s weird, wild “Vice Principals” – a defiantly subversive, substantial comedy series – a comparison that lays the impotence of “Fist Fight” bare. An abrupt late-game monologue from Day’s character about the shortcomings of public education is a perfect symbol of the movie’s failings. It’s unearned and kind of pathetic, only serving to underline just how little thought was put into justifying the premise – a premise that’s hardly more than a title.

The titular fight is reasonably well staged and shot, but it’s a pittance of a consolation prize. There is no reason for these two men to be fighting, no reason to care about either of them, and not a damn given on the part of the screenwriters as to the outcome, so the brawl can only come off as mildly diverting, at best. It, too, is without any real laughs, inadvertently reminding us of the unfunny build-up we just suffered through to get to an unfunny fight.

But the movie is not just unfunny. It is often a desperately sad and uncomfortable affair, conjuring images of unmarked graves of big screen comedy careers past, of chalk outlines of where jokes might have been.

Charlie Day and Ice Cube will live to crack wise another day. “Fist Fight,” on the other hand, is where laughter goes to die.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Bad)

Release Date: February 17, 2017
Studio: New Line Cinema (Warner Bros.)
Director: Richie Keen
Screenwriter: Evan Susser, Van Robichaux
Starring: Charlie Day, Ice Cube, Tracy Morgan, Jillian Bell, Dean Norris, Kumail Nanjiani, Christina Hendricks, Dennis Haysbert, Alexa Nisenson
MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, sexual content/nudity and drug material)