Over-stuffed and under-conceived, Richie Keen’s Fist Fight is a clumsy mélange of clashing comedic perspectives. Throughout, broad slapstick and raunchy gross-out gags butt up against loose, Apatowian improv and some lightly absurdist touches—the whole thing loosely knitted together by the sort of formulaic, over-determined plot one expects from a family comedy.
The road to the inevitable showdown between weak-willed English teacher Andy Campbell (Charlie Day) and hard-ass history instructor Strickland (Ice Cube) is over-plotted from the start. Their dispute arises when Campbell witnesses Strickland take an ax to a student’s desk—an incident that causes Strickland to lose his job after Campbell snitches on him. Challenged by Strickland to a fight, Campbell spends the rest of the day attempting increasingly convoluted methods of evading the conflict, all the while dealing with the looming threat of being laid off, a wife who’s about to give birth, and that moldiest of clichés: making sure he gets to his child’s school recital.
The filmmakers have assembled an unusually deep bench of comic performers, but Keen’s busy direction, which relies on a plethora of boisterous music cues and emphatic close-ups to underscore the bloated screenplay’s jokes, does the cast no favors. Sometimes, though, a performer’s finely honed comedic quirks break through the din by sheer force of will, such as Jillian Bell’s inscrutable deadpan or Tracy Morgan’s off-kilter line readings. Morgan is so good that he makes a rote reference to Minions crackle, and in one of the film’s most hilarious gags, a cutaway to Ice Cube playing the piano becomes an absurdly prolonged showcase for the actor’s intense stare.
In their mad dash to deliver as much plot and as many jokes as possible, like Campbell getting dragged down the hallway by a horse as paint bombs explode in his face, the filmmakers don’t give their performers enough room to breathe, seldom allowing the comedic potential of a scene to sufficiently play itself out. Worse, Keen’s flat shot-reverse-shot setups, which rarely place more than one actor in the frame at a time, make it almost impossible for any rapport between the characters to ever feel convincing.
The film’s bigger-is-better approach to comedy, though, does pay off in the end, as Fist Fight makes good on the promise of its title by delivering the most protracted bout of fisticuffs this side of They Live. It’s a fine example of the primitive delight in watching two grown men beat the shit out of each other, but it’s hard not to wish the filmmakers gave us a reason to care about these characters and their quarrel beyond some screenwriterly contrivances.