Fist Fight starts off as the sort of boring waste of time that talented comedians make solely to fund more promising passion projects. Bad but harmless in a karmic sense, for you suspect Charlie Day, Tracy Morgan, Jillian Bell, Kumail Nanjiani and Stephnie Weir are plotting something that will really make you laugh someday. Plus, it will surely find its dick-joke ceiling quickly, right — not only how many but how often it can tell the same one that is never funny?
Then the ideological nastiness deepens. And persists. And persists. And persists, with a depressing desperation, across 91 of the most painful minutes you could possibly endure. Only then do you realize: Nothing these very talented people might do with their money — short of a public school donation — is worth it. Not six more seasons of Day on FXX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia — the cringe-comedy marvel on which director Richie Keen cut his teeth but, as evidenced here, forgot how to chew. Not Morgan’s belated return to film. Not a better movie Bell may write herself. Not a one-woman marvel Weir might put up. Not even a righteous Twitter burn Nanjiani might lob at the leader of the free world later today. That last one may seem an out-of-place political jab at a puerile comedy. But Fist Fight makes no bones about embracing the very aggro-bully mindset some have currently confused for a mandate. It’s the cinematic equal to a certain someone’s awkward, yanking handshake. Plant your feet firmly against it. Don’t get pulled in.
For whom, exactly, are we supposed to root between the two high school teachers who — when a disciplinary faux pas on a senior prank puts their jobs on the line — decide to settle things with an after-school brawl? Strickland (Ice Cube), the unusually violent hothead who brandishes an axe in his classroom, or Campbell (Day), the spineless toad out of damns to give about teaching but too meek to quit? To be fair, Campbell is an awful English teacher, given misplaced apostrophes in the questions on his dick-defiled whiteboard and absent commas on signs like “Last day of school bitches.” If there’s an uprising against “school bitches,” it happens in a better, funnier movie we don’t see. An absence of sound grammar and the Model UN including a seat for North Korea are the least of this deeply moronic movie’s issues.
“Neither teacher” is the right answer to the rooting question, but Fist Fight isn’t clever enough for that to be its point. Instead, it’s the terrible, brain-dead mistake you perhaps imagined the HBO series Vice Principals to be. That show pokes and prods at its violent-male patterns and punishes them as necessary. Fist Fight lazily promotes them in upsettingly nasty ways; boy, Strickland threatening to tie up Campbell’s family in his house if he runs away from the fight sure is a real gut-buster!
After characterizing not one teenager as anything other than a joke-playing jerk, Fist Fight unconvincingly attempts to summon third-act sympathy for cruel-weasel students against whom Strickland and Campbell are pitted. Writers Van Robichaux and Evan Susser — with an inexplicable story-by assist from Max Greenfield (Schmidt on Fox’s New Girl) — eventually pitch the teachers’ brawl as a rallying point from which they can reclaim resources being strip-mined from this public school. Would that this development were merely a ridiculous notion, given the parade of real-life privatization that threatens to pass this way and would, if this fight actually occurred, be used as a PR cudgel to make it happen.
When you’re sure Fist Fight can’t get any worse, it then craps all over two of Cube’s largest pop-culture triumphs — musical and cinematic — for the sake of awful punchlines, and by his own hand so he has absolutely no one else to blame.
“This is a bad joke,” Day shouts in one of his many irritated-chipmunk reveries, which finally meet their match here in a movie they can’t possibly prop up. There’s more than one — more like 100 — in an early contender for 2017’s worst.