There is a famous saying from George Bernard Shaw that goes, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” No offense to the British writer and thinker, but I can do plenty of things. I choose to teach. Growing up, it may not have been my first choice. Then again, how many people, even the most talented among us, have the opportunity to play professional baseball. While my dad never told me that my dream was unlikely, he at least had the sense to temper my expectations. The result, if I may humble brag for a moment, is a combination of brains and brawn that I have always cultivated. Most people who meet me assume I am some cloistered academic who could not run a block, much less be the kind of athlete I actually am. And while my wish to pitch for the Chicago Cubs was derailed by a bad coach at an early age, the close second choice on my list was to be a college professor. I achieved this goal, and movies like Fist Fight (2017) make me thankful that I teach in higher learning rather than at the high school level.
It is the last day of school as Fist Fight opens, and English teacher Andy Campbell (Charlie Day) is about to walk into a warzone. Okay, not a literal battle, but the minefield of a building full of high schoolers who do not care at all about how much trouble they cause with their increasingly absurd pranks. Summer is a few tantalizing hours away. The teachers have another problem: the final day of classes means that all of them have to basically interview for their jobs next year. There are many rumors about positions, even entire departments, getting cut. This has Andy particularly nervous because his very pregnant wife, Maggie (JoAnna Garcia Swisher), is due to give birth any day and he needs to be able to continue to provide for his growing family. Between the potential loss of employment and the students’ crude behavior, Andy is on edge. It is compounded when he is asked by the History teacher, Strickland (Ice Cube), to help get a television working in the latter’s classroom. When it becomes apparent that the malfunctions are caused by one of the kids, Neil (Austin Zajur), Strickland becomes enraged and destroys the culprit’s desk with an axe. Unsurprisingly, this gets Strickland and Andy sent to Principal Tyler’s (Dean Norris) office. Facing possible firings, Andy breaks down and admits that it was Strickland who was responsible for the property damage. Strickland feels betrayed, and now fired with nothing to lose, he challenges Andy to a fight after school. At first, Andy does not take the threat seriously. Yet the more they see each other, it slowly dawns on him that the seemingly unhinged Strickland is for real. Now panicked, Andy tries several tactics to get out of what will likely be a one-sided bout. None of his colleagues are helpful. The admitted drug addict guidance counselor Holly (Jillian Bell) attempts a mediation that goes nowhere. The gym teacher, Coach Crawford (Tracy Morgan), basically tells Andy that he is going to have to take a beating. The French teacher, Ms. Monet (Christina Hendricks) thinks Andy is a pervert because he caught a student doing inappropriate things in the bathroom and she believes he was in on it. Hence, she wants to essentially see him murdered, and suggests that Strickland knifes Andy during their brawl. In desperation, Andy attempts to bribe Neil by buying him a MacBook Pro in order to get him to change his story and have Strickland’s dismissal overturned. This last part works, though Strickland is now uninterested in returning to the school next year and more focused on the upcoming fight. Andy’s last attempt to avoid the imminent clash is to plant drugs on Strickland and call the police. It is botched and both end up in jail. They are both quickly released, however, when it turns out that the molly that Neil gave him to hide in Strickland’s briefcase is simply aspirin. At the end of his nerves, Andy races back to school for a fiery interview, makes it to his daughter Ally’s (Alexa Nisenson) rather controversial talent show rehearsal, and then zooms back to the school for the appointed match. The exchange of blows goes about as you would expect, though a crazed Andy is able to hold his own for a little while. At the end of it, while Andy lies unconscious, Strickland notices Andy’s phone ringing. The call is from Maggie and she is going into labor. At this point, Strickland relents and drives Andy to the hospital to be with his wife. All is forgiven, too, when media attention for their fight embarrasses the school district, and Andy is able to leverage everyone who had been fired back into their jobs. As our film comes to a close, it is the beginning of the next school year and Andy and Strickland are strolling the halls, cracking down on any aberrant behavior.
In Fist Fight, Andy and Strickland represent two opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of teaching styles. Andy is the kind of educator that attempts to buddy-up to his students to a certain degree. Strickland is the tough guy, take-it-or-leave-it teacher. They are extremes, and no instructor should ever be all one or the other. There is a time for kindness, and there is a time for rigidness. Part of the training for people in these positions is to know the difference between them. Check out Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 some time for a Biblical reference for this eternal truth. Still, Andy’s struggle is in not wanting to face Strickland. In attempting to do so, he commits every sin you can imagine. He blackmails, lies, cheats, smokes marijuana in Strickland’s classroom when it appears the molly plot is failing, misleads his wife, and so on. While the film plays these obstacles for laughs, doing these kinds of things can be extremely damaging to the soul. At the same time, neither am I advocating that Andy give in and fight Strickland. It makes sense that Strickland does not respect Andy. He senses the weakness and cowardice within his colleague. Strickland appears to live by a certain code, and he does not tolerate disruptions to it. While I would prefer a more peaceful solution to their differences, their clash shows each the merit of the other’s approach. Though it ends with Andy perhaps being a little too aggressive with students when class starts back, they nonetheless grew from the experience. And that is the important part. God uses each difficulty in our lives as an opportunity for His grace to mold us into something better. In a sense, this is what happens with Andy and Strickland.
Having said these nice things about Fist Fight, I am not sure I recommend it. There are far too many representations of male parts by students to make it watchable for most anyone. Yes, square Catholic over here complaining about toilet humor, but is it really necessary to draw a giant male member on a football field? Far too often that seems to be the go-to by moviemakers in order to get people to laugh. Maybe I am getting old, but I find this less humorous as I age. The rest is crass and irreverent. In sum, there is nothing special here, so I would not bother.