'Fist Fight' is a Comedy at War With Itself

The new comedy "Fist Fight", which is about an epic throw-down between two teachers, has one foot on either side of the thin line between humor and good taste.

Despite the fact that the feuding teachers heading for an epic fisticuffs battle are of different races - English instructor Campbell (Charlie Day) is a pasty milquetoast; history disciplinarian Strickland (Ice Cube) is what Campbell inadvertently terms "dark roast" - the movie is almost free of race-baiting humor or ethnic insults. That's all, folks. A few amusing moments here and there, but not much else.

Fist Fight was directed by Richie Keen, who previously directed episodes of It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, The Goldbergs, Maron and Angie Tribeca. To go to the movies, be in the movies, they got to really like you. And few of the adults are any more dependable in their judgment.

It's not an entirely unfamiliar premise (it's loosely - very loosely - based on the 1987 high-school comedy Three O'Clock High), but it gets off on the wrong foot by focusing nearly entirely on Campbell to the detriment of everyone else.

With a couple of exceptions, that is.

It's immediately clear that high school English teacher Andy (Day) is a wimp, a doormat, a pushover. There were also too many zany situations that only had me rolling my eyes, not making me laugh like they were supposed to.

Andy is especially nervous.

Among the other characters are Coach Crawford (Tracy Morgan, in one of his first big-screen roles since his tragic highway accident), the ineffectual school security guard (Kumail Nanjiani of "Silicon Valley" and many other recent roles), and the school superintendent (Dennis Haysbert).

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"Nah. I think we should do the public school teachers vs. the private school ones", Day laughed, adding, "Hey, if they want another one, we'll figure a plot out pretty quick".

Andy tries to help Strickland with a VCR (the school won't spring for a DVD player) and things go badly in a hurry, culminating in Strickland destroying a student's desk.

Then it's on. Big, beefy Strickland challenges small, marshmallow-man Campbell to a fight at 3 p.m. after school - and the entire school (and the Internet, #teacherfight), erupts in anticipation. The almost all male, mostly college-age audience at a Thursday night preview screening in Asheville laughed heartily and consistently and seemed pleased enough at the end.

You make it sound so easy! Noble, yes, but not a neat fit here. We're shown some of this messy process in a blooper reel during the credits, in fact.

The movie works best when it finds a balance between flatly familiar and over-aggressively unexpected. Had the races been flipped - let's say Jordan Peele as the nerd, and Kid Rock as the bully - might that have been funnier?

"The problem is they were so good at what they do that they didn't look sloppy enough", explained Day.

Reach Goodykoontz at bill.goodykoontz@arizonarepublic.com. Make no mistake, while Cube is excellent playing yet another hard-edged tough guy, Charlie Day steals the show as the sweet and lovable Campbell.

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