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Thursday, February 16, 2017

Movie Review: #FistFight

The high school teacher beatdown Fist Fight is hilarious until it's not. And then it's just plain offensive.

Review by Matt Cummings

If you're wondering whether that blast of fresh air at your local theater is courtesy of real films finally arriving for our enjoyment, think again. For every day of clear sailing (John Wick: Chapter 2) there's still a storm that blows us off course (Fifty Shades Darker). Depending on whether you like teen drug use, sex, and pedophilia, the high school comedy Fist Fight will either be more proof that the box office is back or this head-scratcher should never have been made.

As the school year ends, high school teachers Andy (Charlie Day), Strickland (Ice Cube), Coach Crawford (Tracy Morgan), and Holly (Jillian Bell) are ready for a vacation. So are the apathetic students: they're pranking every teacher, hanging offensive signs everywhere, and engaging in a giant middle finger to the staff. But the teachers have a ton of additional worry on their hands: the superintendent is re-interviewing all positions, hoping to cut budgets and staff. When the usually prickly Strickland goes postal on a student desk after a prank, Andy is called in to vouch for him. When he refuses (because his principal - played by Dean Norris - threatens to fire one of them), Strickland challenges Andy to fight after school. But the weak Andy is no match for the powerhouse rage of Strickland, and so Andy sets off in a vain attempt to get the fight cancelled. But as 3:00 arrives, all of his efforts fail setting the stage for a throwdown that will make headlines, while Andy's job hangs in the balance.

I'm conflicted over Fist Fight. On the one hand, I laughed out loud many times at the ways Day and others worked the narrative. It was great to see Morgan back in a comedy after his near-fatal accident, completely oblivious to his students drawing a giant penis on the football field. Some of it is very meta, approaching fourth-wall genius, such as the way Director Richie Keen portrays a sequence in which students are rumoring about Strickland's former lives (cop, solider, thug), all of which Ice Cube has portrayed in various films. There's some funny pranking going on here, as if the entire school is united in sending its teachers a message: "We're outta here, and there's nothing you can do about it."

But the teacher in me genuinely cringed at the disturbing amount of pedophile/drug references delivered by Bell. Known for regularly going too far in these types of roles, members of our test audience eventually just stopped laughing at all the smut coming out of her mouth, because far too much of it entered truly taboo subjects. It's one thing to have moments where a teacher's personal life might be revealed as odd or even socially unacceptable, but the way that Day and Keen allow this to happen so frequently just drags down every scene she's in. I know that films of this type don't exactly appeal to everyone, but I have a hard time accepting some of what's contained in Fist Fight. Holly is a character with no value whatsoever, and Bell's one-dimensional portrayal is going to be viewed as offensive by those who've been victims of abuse, or by families that have experienced issues like overly amorous teachers. Perhaps that's not the movie's target audience to begin with, but it's disturbing that Keen and a team of writers led by Van Robichaux and Evan Susser would think those kinds of messages are acceptable. Too many students think low of the schools they attend, and some teachers are caught doing terrible things which Fist Fight treats as comedy gold. In many ways, the plight that many teachers face in today's public schools (apathy being so low on the totem pole of genuine issues we deal with on a constant basis) is marginalized in Fist Fight for the sake of comedy.

If you're willing to look the other way, performances in Fist Fight are all over the place. The real redeemers - Ice Cube and Day - have genuinely great chemistry, with each revisiting old roles that still feel fresh. That might change if we eventually get FF5 one day, but for now they're a hoot to behold. It's clear that most of what they're doing is ad-libbed, a fact verified by Keen during a recent interview. I've made my concerns about Bell clear, but you also get a few moments with Christina Hendricks as a crazy language teacher that wants to see Andy gutted like a fish. She's way underused, with a steaming sexual nature that might be more interesting if they make a sequel. But others like Norris and a cameo by Dennis Haysbert (superintendent) don't hit the mark. There's a lot of driftwood here as well in terms of performances: when Day and Ice Cube aren't on the screen, things really slow down. And there's that 80s message behind the film as well, where the circumstances lead our heroes to declare their disdain for authority, forcing them to back off to appease our heroes. Sometimes that works, and Fist Fight gives us just enough to not hate it; but can I actually recommend it?

Upon leaving the theater, a friend of mine and I got into a philosophical debate about whether my connection to the profession played a role in my concerns about Fist Fight. He might have thought I was overreacting, that my connection to the profession made me more sensitive to the film's bottom line. What I can say is this: if you feel that elements of teenage sex, teen drug use, violence in schools, disrespecting teachers, and very young people cussing up a storm are potentially great subjects to include in a comedy, then you'll love Fist Fight. I don't see it that way even though there are some genuinely funny moments that have nothing to do with the film's more taboo elements. I would hate for a child living in an inner school neighborhood to watch this and remark, "Yeah, all that happens at my school," or actually think that their teachers should be viewed as targets for pranks or blackmail. All of that is in Fist Fight, and it's just not something I can get behind.

Fist Fight is rated R for language throughout, sexual content/nudity and drug material and has a runtime of 91 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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