Hard to believe there’s never been another feature film named “Fist Fight” in the annals of cinema.
No action movie. No boxing movie. No kung fu movie. Nothing. Leave it to a comedy to be the first to claim that memorable title.
Unfortunately, most everything else in this sporadically amusing slapstick has been seen before. “Fist Fight” is just one more vehicle for filmmakers to rely on the improvisational skills of their cast to fill out a one-note idea.
At least it’s a decent idea.
Charlie Day plays Mr. Campbell, a high school English teacher clad in a sports jacket and tie who prefers to lecture about poetry. You know, a weenie.
In the final hours of the semester he’s besieged by senior prank day. He’s also nervously awaiting a meeting with the superintendent to find out if he’s among the teachers laid off because of budget cuts.
This couldn’t come at a worse time, considering his pregnant wife (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) is past her due date, and his preteen daughter (Alexa Nisenson) is counting on him to be her duet partner at a school talent show.
Then he runs afoul of hard-ass teacher Mr. Strickland (Ice Cube), who’s already struggling with reaching his history students.
“Half those kids thought the Civil War was a fight between Batman and Superman,” he complains (and plugs another Warner Bros. movie).
As the hallways descend into anarchy, complications lead Strickland to target his rage toward Campbell. He challenges the poor guy to a brawl in the parking lot at the stroke of 3 p.m.
“Fist Fight” steals its best ideas from two cult favorites. 1987’s “Three O’Clock High” found a nerdy high-schooler trying to weasel his way out of battling the class bully. And in 1993’s “Falling Down,” a docile worker gradually gains a backbone during a day when everything conspires against him.
With his squeaky voice and fidgeting, the capable Day (“Horrible Bosses”) convincingly becomes a milquetoast who always seems to be on the verge of throwing a tantrum in private. The type of guy who’d stub his toe, then excuse himself so he could go scream in a closet out of earshot.
He’s quite the contrast to Cube, whose deliberate, over-enunciated performing style already comes across in every movie like a teacher scolding his students. While Cube often finds himself in comedies playing the straight man (a la the “Ride Along” franchise), he’s not by any definition “funny.”
Director Richie Keen (a TV journeyman from such series as Day’s “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) attempts to add humor by showcasing flamboyant sketch veterans. Tracy Morgan makes his post-car accident return as a clueless gym coach. Kumail Nanjiani (“Portlandia”) plays an indifferent campus security guard. And Jillian Bell (“Workaholics”) earns the majority of supporting screen time as a vulgar guidance counselor whose primary quests involve sleeping with her graduating students and/or giving up her recreational meth use.
But the film is so stacked with these aggressive weirdos that they torpedo the central storyline. If everybody’s a profane, combative menace, then it doesn’t seem like such a standout transition for Campbell when he comes unhinged.
At least “Fist Fight” does not shortchange its final battle. It’s an amusingly chaotic affair, punctuated by clumsiness, makeshift weapons and pent-up emotions exploding.
Now here’s a sequence that truly does live up to the promise of the title.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Rated R. Time: 1:31.