Awkwardly sandwiched between winter films vying for awards and Hollywood summer blockbusters seeking large audiences are the late-winter and spring movies. Like a quarterback at a math meet, these films simply do not fit into the traditional cycle that the film industry has inadvertently created. Some of these movies are dramatic pictures that studios purposely choose to release late, because they are regarded as weak contenders in awards season. Others are low-budget action films that cannot compete against the usual summer superhero hits.
Comedy and horror films have been in trouble for a long time now. Not only do these two genres fail to fit neatly into the spring-summer transitional season, to add insult to injury, studios do not want to place inherently riskier projects in competition against surefire box office giants, such as “Suicide Squad,” on the same weekend. Each year, after countless reboots and remakes, horror films and comedies fail to generate as much money as their cinematic counterparts and are bemoaned by critics and audiences for lacking fresh ideas and originality.
“Fist Fight” is the epitome of what the comedy genre needs.
Opening to a rock track, the film quickly winks at “Brat Pack” high school films, honoring John Hughes’s ’80s cinematic culture right off the bat. From its trailers and marketing, “Fist Fight” appears to be about a brawl between two teachers who agree to fight one another after class on the last day of school. Charlie Day plays Andy Campbell, a meek, mild-mannered teacher who garners the wrath of Ice Cube’s character, Mr. Strickland, after he gets fired because of Campbell. However, “Fist Fight” goes beyond the fight between the two public school teachers. It is a film filled with rich social commentary about underfunded public schools and the difficulties of being a teacher. It also touches upon themes of bullying and the confrontation of fears.
The key to the film’s refreshing, intelligent pace is that it never takes itself too seriously. It is a prime example of how films with a seemingly flat plot can achieve great finesse through nimble directing. “Fist Fight” is as entertaining as it is hilarious, and this combination is the result of Richie Keen’s masterful direction. His nuanced constructions of solid supporting characters along with his sharp writing make for hilarious sequences that are bound to raise some loud laughs. Primarily known for directing TV comedies such as “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “The Goldbergs” and “Angie Tribeca,” Keen makes good use of the film’s 91-minute runtime, managing to pack in as much humor as possible without ever detracting from the general plotline.
Are the performances a bit generic? Sure.
Day essentially plays the same character that made him famous in “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” and Ice Cube emulates his previous roles in films such as “21 Jump Street” and “Ride Along.” However, Keen’s swift directing makes both performances effective within the sidesplitting narrative. Additionally, Keen makes masterful use of the film’s soundtrack to differentiate moods in-between scenes. His careful use of slow-motion only makes the film funnier, though this could have hindered the sequences under a weaker director.
“Fist Fight” boasts a spectacular supporting cast: Tracy Morgan, Jillian Bell, Christina Hendricks, Dean Norris and Kumail Nanjiani appear in supporting roles that further strengthen the film. Although the comedic chemistry between Day and Ice Cube is unmatched, Morgan steals every scene in which he appears. Besides his participation in Chris Rock’s “Top Five,” “Fist Fight” is Morgan’s first major film since his nearly fatal car accident in 2014. Despite the film’s star-studded cast, Keen makes room for talented newcomers such as Austin Zajur, Bill Kottkamp and Alexa Nisenson. Set in a high school, the students provide some of the strongest, and most surprising, laughs throughout the film.
As the film is advertised as a fight between two teachers, the culminating and long-awaited battle certainly does not disappoint. The fight resembles less the ending of a “Rocky” movie and more of a well-choreographed WWE ladder match.
Comedy films are far from going extinct, but well-written ones are certainly endangered. However, “Fist Fight” serves as a solid example of this dying breed. While Ice Cube and Charlie Day deliver formulaic performances reminiscent of past characters, Van Robichaux and Evan Susser’s screenplay as well as Richie Keen’s exceptional directorial skills elevate this film, making it a notable exception to the early spring film cycle.