By now, thanks to Hollywood’s raunchy and crude portrayals of modern educators in works such as “Bad Teacher” and “Vice Principals,” anyone going to the premiere of a feature film about high school should know they’re not going to be seeing the next “Dead Poets Society” or “Stand and Deliver.”
But “Fist Fight,” opening Friday, brings the genre to a whole new level. Down. To the sub-basement of vulgarity. The movie is often laugh-out-loud funny, I have to admit, but I’m willing to bet that teenagers in audience will enjoy it a lot more than teachers and administrators.
The movie opens on senior prank day, also the last day of the school year, at Roosevelt High School somewhere in suburban U.S.A., where students are lawn-mowing offensive images into the grass of the football field, a drug-addled horse is roaming the halls, and pornography has been rigged to play on a device in the school trophy case.
“Why aren’t they this ambitious with their schoolwork?” one teacher says.
Mild-mannered English teacher Andy Campbell (Charlie Day of the TV show “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) is nervous, not just because one of his students has made him the target of one more crude prank. But the worst prank of all is being pulled on the teachers because Principal Tyler (Dean Norris) is deciding which teachers need to be fired on this last day of school.
Campbell has a wife and daughter at home and a new baby due any day, so the last thing he can afford is to lose his job.
Meanwhile, Campbell has a minor altercation in the teachers’ lounge with Mr. Strickland (Ice Cube) over the fancy coffee and espresso machine. This leads to a visit to Strickland’s history classroom, where a student is hampering the teacher’s efforts to show the Ken Burns documentary “The Civil War” by using a cellphone remote control app.
This leads the history teacher to a fit of rage, and he chops the student’s desk to pieces with an ax. When Campbell and Strickland end up before the principal, Campbell tattles on his angry colleague out of fear for his job, and Strickland is added to the list of dismissed teachers.
This leads to the main premise of the movie—the fist fight. Or at least to Strickland’s challenge of Campbell to a fight outside school at the end of the day, as if they were a couple of 6th graders in the pre-zero tolerance days. “Snitches get stiches,” Strickland says.
Word of the impending fight quickly spreads, not just among the social media-addicted students, but also with an unsympathetic 911 operator (Kym Whitley), who assumes at first that Campbell is a student worried about a fight. “If you’re being bullied, tell a teacher,” she says. When he informs her that he is a teacher, she makes him repeat that for the enjoyment of the entire 911 center.
And then there’s the female educators at Roosevelt High, which include a guidance counselor (Jillian Bell) who distastefully lusts after a senior, counting down the hours before the jock will no longer be a student and she presumes she can fulfill her desires without violating laws or ethics. And a French teacher (Christina Hendricks) who does little to break out of the stereotype of the sexy teacher.
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).
The biggest laughs come when Campbell makes it to the middle school talent show of his daughter (Alexa Nisensen), where he cluelessly agrees to let her drop a song from “Rent” in favor of the rap song she really wants to sing, a Big Sean number that is so full of F-words that faces everywhere are aghast. The song, though, helps the daughter put her own school bully in her place and gives Campbell the confidence to confront Mr. Strickland.
It’s not giving too much away to say that there’s no touchy-feely “Hey, what are we really going to fight about?” moment between Campbell and Strickland in the school yard. The movie lives up to its title and gives us an epic (if somewhat cartoonish) fist fight between the two. Variety called it “Welcome to the Blackboard Jungle” or “Goodbye, Mr. Cube.”
While the teachers’ unions and others have decried this genre, “Fist Fight” is probably one more raunchy school movie that will pass through theaters quickly. Unless, that is, someone comes up with the idea of turning it into a TV show, like the short-lived TV version of “Bad Teacher” and similar shows.
But still, if I were a teacher or administrator, I would be a little bit nervous on senior prank day this spring.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.