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Sunday, February 19, 2017

Fist Fight

Fist Fight doesn't always work, but it works enough that I am giving it a marginal recommendation.  There are moments where I laughed, and even when I wasn't, I appreciated the energy in which the cast was approaching the material.  The movie can be a bit sour, and doesn't really seem concerned with having us like its characters.  But at the same time, that's kind of what appealed to me about it.

As anyone who reads my reviews regularly knows, if there's one Hollywood trend I can't stand, it's raunchy hard-R comedies aimed at adults that go soft and sentimental near the end.  I refer to this trend as "feel good smut", and it's been infecting pretty much every major comedy aimed at adults these days.  The characters in these movies start out as foulmouthed jerks who seem to have no idea of social morals, but then the movie will usually spend its third act bending over backwards trying to make us love these people, and convincing us that they're really just misunderstood, and have big hearts.  It often feels like the filmmakers are apologizing to the audience for the movie they were trying to make.  Fist Fight is the first major adult comedy I can think of in a while that doesn't fall into this trap.  These people are not good at heart, nor do they find redemption, and I actually found that refreshing and honest.

There's actually a moment near the end of the movie that tricks you into thinking it's going to go the sentimental route.  It concerns the hero (Charlie Day) trying to make it to an elementary school talent show that his young daughter (Alexa Nisenson) is performing in.  The show is important to her, and he doesn't want to let her down.  So, he races to make it to the talent show, heads backstage, and gives her a pep talk.  His daughter takes the stage and...Well, I won't ruin the pay off.  All I will say is that I was surprised, and any movie that manages to surprise me gets my respect in some way.  Is this a great movie?  Heck, no.  But, I honestly found myself laughing at many moments.  I wasn't always proud of the fact that I was laughing at some of the things I was seeing, but the fact that I was means that the movie was working for me.  The cast also seem to know what kind of movie they're in, and they act appropriately.

The plot is set at Roosevelt High School, which is apparently mostly staffed by a faculty who just doesn't care anymore.  It's the last day of school, and the entire student body is participating in "prank day", a tradition that has apparently ballooned not just in popularity over the years, but also in the level of how elaborate the pranks the students pull have become.  It's gotten to the point where a racehorse high on meth galloping down the halls of the school no longer surprises the staff.  In the middle of this anarchy is the mild mannered English teacher, Andy Campbell (Day).  He's the quiet type who seems like he was born to be pushed around by everyone else.  His students don't respect him, and frequently leave crude drawings on his white board, but he lets it all go.  This is partly because he's a wimp, and also partly because a lot of his fellow teachers are being let go.  Andy's wife is pregnant with their second child, and he doesn't want to stir any waves for the sake of job security.

On the other end of the spectrum is the history teacher, Ron Strickland (Ice Cube).  He's the permanently scowling sort that nobody wants to mess with.  He has his own legend in the halls of the school, complete with a shady past that ranges from stories of him being a former cop on the edge who murdered drug dealers, to him assassinating America's enemies on the battlefield of war.  He is one of the few teachers who does not take any crap from his students, and frequently uses intimidation to keep them in line.  Through a complex series of events, Andy ends up snitching on Ron to the Principal after an event concerning Ron taking a fire axe to a misbehaving student's desk.  This leads to Ron losing his job, and immediately challenging the milquetoast Andy to a fight in the school parking lot at the end of the day. 

This spirals into a series of events with Andy desperately trying to avoid or completely call off the fight to save his skin.  Some of his actions do call his character into question, such as when he tries to plant drugs in Strickland's bag and call the police.  However, we never lose our interest in the character, thanks to Day's performance, which expertly uses slapstick as he manically runs down halls, stuffs himself in lockers, and hiding in bathrooms.  It plays well against Ice Cube's comically snarling performance, which he pretty much perfected with the two Jump Street movies, but still manages to make entertaining here.  The two leads play off of each other well with their different comic approaches, and the movie itself does a good job of mixing their different styles together.

When the titular fist fight between the two does eventually come about, I was surprised by how well it was executed.  It's actually quite brutal, with biting, choking, body-slamming, head-stomping, and fire extinguishers to the noggin.  But, it never gets so violent that we stop laughing.  There is a manic energy that carries throughout the movie, so that even if it does get quite mean spirited and violent at times, there's also a certain comic energy to it that I really enjoyed.  Like I said, it was nice to finally have a movie for adults go all the way.  It doesn't try to make these characters into likable goofballs.  They're violent, they can be depraved in a funny way, and they can be driven to do horrible things.  But because of the energy of the film, as well as the strong performances by the leads and their co-stars, I was able to follow along and generally had a good time.

I can understand how Fist Fight will turn off some audiences.  Heck, I suspect I might be in the minority with this one.  But, I have to be truthful and say that I did laugh more than once, and I was taken in by its energy.  This is not a deep movie, and it doesn't have a lot to say, not even about the failing public education system.  It just wants to be a goofy and incredibly crude movie, and I kind of admired it for that.

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