Phil Joanou’s 1987 teen comedy Three O’Clock High, while not a remake of High Noon, signaled its heritage and its comic anxiety in the title: The solemnity of Fred Zinnemann’s midday-showdown Western was transformed into something sounding like the name of a high school, with the ticking-clock deadline now timed to the final school bell — three more hours of desperation than Gary Cooper had to endure.
Richie Keen’s Fist Fight, which isn’t a remake of either film, makes a considerably blander promise to viewers: There’s going to be a fight. With fists.
If that’s an attempt to manage expectations, fair enough. The movie is funnier and more colorful than its flat moniker suggests, and when that dreaded rumble finally arrives, it involves much more than fists. But the feature directing debut for TV vet Richie Keen also represents a missed opportunity, given the talents of this charismatic and game cast. Moviegoers may respond well given the dearth of grown-up comedy on screens at the moment, but the pic will add little to the reputations of leads Ice Cube and Charlie Day.
Day plays mild-mannered English teacher Andy Campbell, who’s trying to get through the last day of school without losing his job: His principal (Dean Norris, outperforming most of the comedic actors around him) is laying off much of the faculty, and to add to the stress, an annual “Senior Prank Day” has brought mayhem to campus. (Think drug-addled horses galloping through the halls.)
Ice Cube is Mr. Strickland, a history teacher whose perpetually elevated anger level is never adequately explained. Sure, he eventually rants about budget cuts and disrespect for teachers, but really the cause seems to be that he’s Ice Cube, and the movie needs Mr. Strickland to be scary.
After some classroom misbehavior triggers a tantrum in which Strickland takes a fire ax to a student’s desk — sure, why not? — Campbell is forced to bear witness against him, getting Strickland fired. Strickland, who has already threatened to “go postal” on the administration, tells Campbell that he’ll take his revenge on him instead. The two are to meet for a smackdown after school, or else Strickland will follow Campbell home (where his daughter and very pregnant wife are already worried about his ability to care for them).
Perhaps in a nod to Three O’Clock High‘s active camerawork (by Barry Sonnenfeld, before he became a director), Keen and DP Eric Alan Edwards enjoy pushing in on Strickland and Campbell as threats are delivered in this and later scenes. But that’s the extent of their use of technique to generate anxiety as Campbell tries to get out of the fight. Instead, the movie relies on a script full of often unbelievable complications. At their worst, these are utterly baffling — like the French teacher (Christina Hendricks) who makes threats so psychotic they outstrip Strickland’s. Others are just filler, as when the school’s security guard tells Campbell that, since the danger he faces is after school ends, there’s nothing he can do. (With luck, after the release of The Big Sick, Kumail Nanjiani will never need to take another role this thankless.)
Some of the gags work, though, especially when co-stars Tracy Morgan and Jillian Bell are on hand. (Morgan’s lines could use a punch-up, but he’s a very welcome sight after being kept offscreen so long by his 2014 injury.) While he doesn’t employ as much of the weirdness he brings to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (a show Keen has occasionally directed), Day does eventually come to life as Campbell exhausts his options and realizes he will have to defend himself. The film’s last act grows more enjoyable by the minute, observing as the teacher stands up not just to his tormentor but to everyone else who might want to demean him. (His daughter follows suit in a talent-show scene that brings down the house.) Whatever punishment he has to take after that 3 p.m. bell rings, at least Campbell is no longer accused of that ultimate big-screen sin: being a wuss.
Production companies: New Line Pictures, 21 Laps Entertainment, Wrigley Pictures
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Ice Cube, Charlie Day, Tracy Morgan, Jillian Bell, Dean Norris, Christina Hendricks, Kumail Nanjiani
Director: Richie Keen
Screenwriters: Van Robichaux, Evan Susser
Producers: Dan Cohen, Max Greenfield, Shawn Levy, John Rickard
Executive producers: Bruce Berman, Richard Brener, Samuel J. Brown, Charlie Day, Toby Emmerich, Marty P. Ewing, Ice Cube, Dave Neustadter, Billy Rosenberg, Steven Mnuchin
Director of photography: Eric Alan Edwards
Production designer: Chris Cornwell
Costume designer: Denise Wingate
Editor: Matthew Freund
Composer: Dominic Lewis
Casting director: Rich Delia
Rated R, 90 minutes