Sometimes it's best not to overthink things. After all, the simplest premises have a tendency to yield the best results. Richie Keen's Fist Fight (his debut as a feature director) abides by that idea to a fault, and the result is a mostly hilarious and gut-busting entry to the hard-R raunchy comedy genre. Fist Fight is not a movie for the whole family, but if your head is already in the gutter when you walk into the theater, then you will have a splendid time watching the insanity gradually unfold. What this film lacks in inventiveness it more than makes up for in kinetic energy and a sense of fun.
Even if you know nothing about Fist Fight going in, the title alone should give you a reliable sense of direction. Mr. Campbell (Charlie Day) is a mild-mannered teacher trying to keep his head low and his job safe through a series of layoffs during the last day of school. By contrast, Mr. Strickland (Ice Cube) is a no-nonsense hard-ass who will stop at nothing to ensure that his students receive a proper (albeit terrifying) education. When Strickland goes too far during one of his classes, Campbell reports his colleague to the principal (Dean Norris), which causes an enraged Strickland to challenge him to a fist fight after school. What follows is a race against time as Campbell, the school's horny guidance counselor (Jillian Bell), and clueless gym teacher (Tracy Morgan) attempt to find a way out of the fight before the final bell of the day rings.
Fist Fight shows a commendable commitment to its core premise and uses every tool at its disposal to continuously increase the tension and ramp up the stakes. From the opening moments of the movie, it tells that audience that it exists in a heightened reality. The students at this school are animals, and the decent members of the school's faculty seem wholly outnumbered by a wide array of delightfully deranged lunatics. Fist Fight's basic story wouldn't work if the film took place over the course of several days, but the combination of these psychopathic personalities and the ever-present ticking clock moving closer and closer to the titular brawl turns the movie into a hilarious pressure cooker of a farce. What we have here is a film that isn't ashamed to embrace what it ultimately is, and watching Charlie Day's psyche deteriorate as the story progresses is simply too much fun to ignore.
Sometime around the release of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, we noticed a significant trend develop in the comedy world. Rather than rely on the strength of their scripts, films (particularly the ones produced by Judd Apatow) started shooting hours of "shot reverse shot" footage and editing the improv of the actors into something cohesive. While Fist Fight uses the method to fill out its run time with some great moments (I honestly could watch Tracy Morgan riff all day long), I was taken aback by how much of the film's best comedic moments actually avoided using that well-worn technique. Fist Fight isn't a one trick pony; running jokes are planted early in the film that pay off by the climax, utterly vulgar sight gags seem meticulously orchestrated, and classic slapstick comedy is on full display.
That said, there is still plenty of improv in this film, and you certainly get the feeling that large segments of Fist Fight's second act came together in the editing room. For the most part, the movie feels coherent enough, but there's a discernible sense that certain characters (particularly Christina Hendricks' character) were supposed to have more prominent roles in the original cut of the film. However, I found myself laughing at so many scenes (specifically the ones featuring Jillian Bell) that it ultimately felt easy to forgive the movie's sins. While some of the jokes don't land as well as Fist Fight thinks they do, the story keeps the humor coming so fast (and the supporting cast is so uniformly charming) that it becomes hard to dwell on the misfires.
Of course, the main reason Fist Fight genuinely works is the wonderfully antagonistic chemistry between its two leads. Ice Cube doesn't necessarily reinvent the wheel with his tough guy portrayal of Mr. Strickland -- you could easily swap this character out for his characters from the Jump Street or Ride Along franchises. However, he has an excellent dynamic with his co-stars, and he works as a perfect counterpoint to the real star of Fist Fight: Charlie Day. Seriously, the guy is a Swiss Army Knife of comedy, as he combines the manic energy of Will Ferrell, the awkward nice guy routine of Ben Stiller, and even the raw physicality of Buster Keaton into something fantastic. This movie is Day's first real time to shine outside of It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia and he definitively proves that he can anchor a comedy by himself.
If you're in the mood for an escapist comedy (and if you don't easily get offended by all raunchy content), then Fist Fight is worth your time. It doesn't utilize the most original premise in the comedy genre, but it milks its concept for all its worth through an arsenal of entertaining performances and a profound sense of comedic tension.