Fist Fight was released last February just after the “Punch a Nazi” meme went viral, but now the movie is back; its home-video release tying in with the Left’s lenience toward Antifa anarchy. This coincidence suggests that violence has become an accepted form of political frustration. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders all made statements, following the November 8, 2016, election, that encourage their followers to “fight.”
Not serious enough to define this chaos, Fist Fight engages it pathetically. The juvenile comedy, starring Ice Cube and Charlie Day as high-school teachers set to rumble at day’s end, weakly satirizes our immature, primitive urges. (It’s a parody of a parody, like 1987’s Three O’Clock High, which updated the classic 1950s liberal western allegory High Noon.)
Fist Fight should have been a Kafkaesque expression of savagery tamed by American civility — an exposé of our educational system’s failure to enlighten. But the filmmakers raise recognizable tensions — between men, co-workers, blacks, and whites — only to dismiss them. The humor of two adults acting like children is not just shrill but antagonistic and offensive, in the vulgar style made popular by Bad Santa, Wedding Crashers, and Bridesmaids. (Jillian Bell plays an obese faculty member with lewd fantasies about seducing her male students.) While social taboos are broken, director Richie Keen’s febrile storytelling and the shallow script never tell us how the film’s characters became so dissatisfied and vindictive.
The Teacher closes in on the social danger that Fist Fight treats with slapstick and wisecracks; we see a social system of crushed dreams and parents determined to prevent their children’s futures from being ruined. At the same time, the adults split into treacherous cliques; some support Comrade Teacher’s abuse of power; others, the cowardly malcontents, don’t realize the potential for rising up in solidarity. (This PTA sequence seems modeled on the confusions in Ionesco’s The Rhinoceros.)
As a film critic witnessing the simultaneous collapse of popular culture at the movies and the collapse of cultural unity outside the movies, I cannot simply juxtapose Fist Fight and The Teacher without pointing out the irony of a Hollywood hit that makes light of social catastrophe and a European art film that offers a facile critique of antisocial precedents. That irony is evident in the current acceptance of violent protests modeled after strong-arm Socialist nostrums. It’s as inveigling as Ice Cube’s hip-hop machismo, Charlie Day’s snark, and Zuzana Maurery’s deceitful wiles (Meryl Streep is a cinch for Hollywood’s Comrade Teacher remake).
Because most film critics have European roots, East European films — especially those with ties to the Communist past — receive inordinate attention from gatekeepers devoted to leftist interests. Like Bulgaria’s Glory and Romania’s Graduation, The Teacher dramatizes fascist fascination and the banal resistance. Fist Fight shows that American filmmakers can come up with their own absurdist tales.
Don’t look at Fist Fight as simply poor filmmaking; its conceit is calculated. It means to offend, just as it means to trivialize the barely understood social tensions that, these days, are customarily exploited — whether by Occupy, Black Lives Matter, or Antifa — without resolution. It substitutes progressivism for entertainment, and for that reason it epitomizes everything that’s wrong in film culture today.
— Armond White is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.