Charlie Day has made a name for himself playing frenetic, high-pitched idiots in the “Horrible Bosses” movies and TV’s “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” so his performance in “Fist Fight” — as a mild-mannered, reasonably intelligent high school English teacher named Andy Campbell — is risky. To the extent that Charlie Day is known to the general public, it’s as a wound-up supporting character, not the grounded protagonist. Mr. Campbell has a pregnant wife and a young daughter and everything!
Day is up against Ice Cube, typecast as Mr. Strickland, a terrifying history teacher who never for one second comes across as a man with a college education (but never mind). It’s the last day of school at Roosevelt High, the students are in open rebellion (“senior prank day” has gotten out of hand), the teachers are demoralized — but everyone fears Strickland, who finally snaps and becomes comically violent in class. There are 30 witnesses, but for some reason it’s Campbell’s testimony to Principal Tyler (Dean Norris) that gets Strickland fired, causing him to challenge Campbell to after-school fisticuffs.
Campbell spends the rest of the film trying to get out of fighting Strickland, either by getting him his job back, talking him out of it, or getting the police involved. In the process, Campbell realizes that his wife (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) thinks he’s a pushover who never stands up for himself and that he’ll need to go through with the fight or feel emasculated forever.
Directed by Richie Keen, whose TV experience includes a handful of “It’s Always Sunny” episodes, the film is at its best when Campbell unravels, stops following the rules (since nobody else does), and goes for broke. But there are sporadic laughs throughout thanks to a general sense of anarchy and supporting characters like Jillian Bell’s meth-using, student-seducing guidance counselor. Van Robichaux and Evan Susser’s sitcom-simple screenplay is bogged down by extraneous characters — Christina Hendricks as a vengeful French teacher; Tracy Morgan as a befuddled coach — and gratuitous swearing (it’s like the writers just learned about the F-word). But the film’s energetic, almost cartoonish mania wins us over in the end, as long as we don’t give any thought to the lesson it teaches: that cheating, violence, and defiance of authority are acceptable (even preferable) ways to succeed.
B- (1 hr., 31 min.; )