Fist Fight (2017) is a comedy movie about an altruistic but meek high school teacher named Andy Campbell (Charlie Day), who is challenged to a physical fight by an ill-tempered and recently fired colleague Ron Strickland (Ice Cube). Whilst Fist Fight is Richie Keen’s cinematic directorial debut, he is already an established name in TV due to his hit sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (also starring Day). Keen’s experience is evident and unsurprising, as the film itself feels like a sitcom episode that doesn’t know when to end.
The action takes place over the course of the final day of term before summer holidays begin. Senior pranks are in full swing and causing havoc, much to the disdain of Campbell and the other teachers. To add to this stress, Principal Tyler (Dean Norris) has begun to ruthlessly fire staff members before the superintendent visits that afternoon. Strickland blames Campbell for his dismissal, who soon descends into shrieking hysteria as he tries to keep his job, avoid an arranged fight and make it to his daughter’s talent show.
Despite its flaws, Fist Fight has some genuinely funny moments of situational comedy littered throughout. Highlights include the mariachi band organised to follow the principal around for the day and a meth addled horse set loose in the corridors. However, a lot of the jokes between teachers are uncomfortable, particularly those that are paedophilic in nature (and there are many). These quips become mere background noise when compared to the massively problematic representation at the heart of the film.
Ice Cube’s character was written as an angry black man stereotype, with absolutely no subversion in the role. He brandishes a knife in work and is in dire need of some anger management, particularly evident when he smashes a pupil’s mobile phone for using it in class. As if this punishment wasn’t enough, he also smashes up the student’s desk with an axe. During this ordeal, wild animal noises unmistakably echo in the background, dehumanising an already demonised character. Later on, Strickland suggests that he and Campbell sort out their problems in the “primitive way” by fighting in the car park, a moment that merits a sigh from any politically conscious viewer.
During his arrest scene, Ice Cube looks directly at the camera and says “Fuck the Police”, a reference to Ice Cube’s rap career and his group NWA’s seminal 1988 anti-police brutality anthem. Rather than providing any social commentary, the audience is presented with a man whose actions most definitely warrant arrest, a frustratingly regressive portrayal considering the current political climate in the US. Surely this was a prime opportunity to raise issues of inequality in a family movie, rather than making light of the issue.
At times it seems as though Fist Fight has set out directly to offset Moonlight’s (2016) recent victory at the Oscars. Strickland personifies the kind of toxic masculinity enforced upon black men that Barry Jenkins critiques in his portrait of queer African American life. He constantly pressures Campbell into conflict by telling him to deal with it like a ‘real man’ or by calling him a ‘pussy’. His refusal to hug Campbell in the end indicates his lack of development and a reinforcement of restrictive norms.
In the latter half of the film, a lazy political message is introduced, with little time or thought given to its development. Strickland shares with Campbell how he hopes that the fight will make the superintendent realise that change needs to be made in the public schooling system. This nondescript change is promised in the end, along with Campbell and his daughter both realising that they need to stand up to the bullies in their lives. Rather than going all out with the ‘rising against oppressive structures’ message, Keen decides instead to settle for something more vague and noncommittal. The ideology feels more akin to the film’s persistent references to Twitter, a meagre attempt at keeping up with trends and appealing to young people. However, I’d be genuinely surprised if even young teenagers could take much enjoyment from this headache-inducing mess.