Ah, schoolyard dustups. Always such a monumental buildup; more often than not just a lot of youthful hot air.
The makers of “Fist Fight” aim to have a good time with these detention-prompting extracurriculars by imagining the friction is between two nominally adult teachers, Charlie Day and Ice Cube. Day, in particular, pours all the comedic energy you’d expect into fretfully hyping the conflict. Surprisingly, though, it’s around the point when punches start flying that the movie clicks. The humdrum run-up to the main event feels every bit like director Richie Keen (Day’s “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) and the writers picturing how funny an intra-faculty beatdown would be, then fumbling their way backward from there.
It’s immediately clear that high school English teacher Andy (Day) is a wimp, a doormat, a pushover. If his fidgety, apologetic manner isn’t enough to tell us so, there are also his dowdy khakis, his Honda Fit, and his graffiti-tagged whiteboard. The last day of school — senior prank day — never looked so dicey for an educator.
It’s hard to understand the system that hired both Andy and Strickland (Cube), a permanently peeved colleague who’s the one thing standing between the students and all-out anarchy. Woe to anyone, especially Andy, who dares suggest to the termination-happy principal (Dean Norris) that Strickland’s ax-wielding disciplinary style goes a little too far. When Andy files a complaint, Strickland responds: “It’s on.”
Andy’s desperation to find a way out of the showdown is more hectic than hilarious. A hug-it-out scene in the school’s model U.N. room is sharp, and so are exchanges between Andy and the mischievous, spacey guidance counselor (Jillian Bell, “Workaholics”) in which he hints that maybe she ought to try harder to, um, just say no. But Tracy Morgan’s goofy gym teacher is improvisationally flabby; Christina Hendricks’s promising, hip-swiveling French teacher is erratically scripted; and Bell’s character is more clueless about excess than Cube’s rage case. She might be able to get away with one joke about taboo student ogling, but a recurring gag? Yeesh.
The movie works best when it finds a balance between flatly familiar and over-aggressively unexpected. We’re good with the preposterous brawl and its riotously inappropriate talent show lead-in. Beyond that, give this one an average grade.
Directed by Richie Keen. Written by Van Robichaux, Evan Susser, Max Greenfield. Starring Charlie Day, Ice Cube, Jillian Bell, Tracy Morgan. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 91 minutes. R (language throughout, sexual content, nudity, drug material).Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.