Fist Fight stars pay tribute to the classy high-school films of yesteryear

“Our film is some weird combination between [classic 1952 western] High Noon and a John Hughes movie,” says director Richie Keen.

Actor Ice Cube. Frederic J Brown / AFP
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"I think he's going to be one of the most iconic teachers ever on screen," says rapper-turned-­actor Ice Cube, talking about his character in riotous comedy Fist Fight.

This is a bold statement – not least when you consider the strong competition from characters such Robin Williams's inspirational instructor in Dead Poet's Society, Paul Gleason's detention-serving department head in The Breakfast Club, or Sidney Poitier's racially abused teacher in To Sir, With Love.

Then again, hard-as-nails Ice Cube is not the sort of star you want to start an argument with.

In Fist Fight, directed by TV comedy regular Richie Keen, he plays Mr Strickland (a homage to the high-school head in Back to the Future, presumably), a volatile history teacher working at a rundown state school on the verge of anarchy.

When a student plays a prank, Strickland loses it, smashing up the teenager’s desk with an axe. This class-rage is witnessed by fellow teacher Mr Campbell (Charlie Day).

“My job is on the line,” says Day, “so I rat him out and he challenges me to a fight at the end of the school day.”

With the clock ticking, mild-mannered Campbell tries to squirm his way out of the playground rumpus any way he can.

"Our film is some weird combination between [classic 1952 western] High Noon and a John Hughes movie," says Keen.

While he is evidently a fan of Hughes's classic 1980s high school movies, such as The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Fist Fight is also clearly inspired by another '80s school-set yarn, Three O'Clock High, in which a bully threatens a fellow pupil with a beating after school.

Keen says the violence in his film is neither gratuitous nor slapstick, but has some meaning behind it.

“This fight becomes a cathartic experience about the system,” he says.

“This is the day that the wheels come off – a school that’s falling apart, an administration that needs to make cuts.

“It’s the last day of [term] and the kids are wreaking havoc on the school. Someone’s going to finally blow and this is the day where that happens.”

Ice Cube, who grew up in the tough neighbourhood of South Central, Los Angeles, says the character of Strickland rang true to his experience.

“There were a few teachers in our school that were pretty rough,” he says.

“I call them ‘grab you by the collar’ teachers. They didn’t care who you were. Once a month, you’d hear about a teacher slamming a student up against a locker.”

But the tough ones are always the best, he adds.

“They command the respect and they’re really all about learning and no nonsense,” he says. “If more teachers were like that, maybe we’d have a better ­system.”

For Day, whose parents are music teachers, shooting the movie in Roosevelt High School, a former public school on the outskirts of Atlanta, brought back chilling memories of his own ­education in Rhode Island.

“It was not the happiest time of my life,” he says. “I struggled in school – I couldn’t pay attention. I blame the girls. I was too distracted. I was better as I got older, but as a youngster, my head was in the clouds.”

While Day is a veteran of film comedies like Horrible Bosses – not to mention the long-running sitcom It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, where he first worked with Keen – he is not the only established comic talent in Fist Fight. Playing supporting roles as other teachers on campus are Jillian Bell (22 Jump Street) and Tracy Morgan (30 Rock). Former Mad Men star Christina Hendricks also appears.

Even Ice Cube, with his Barbershop and Friday franchises, has proved himself in the comedy stakes, something he attributes to his time rapping with seminal hip-hop outfit, N.W.A.

“Our records, a lot of them, do have a dark sense of humour and tone,” he says.

“So laughing has always been a part of my life and I’ve always enjoyed funny people. A lot of my friends are ­funny.”

Everyone needs a break from bleakness and despair, he adds.

“At some point people gotta release … people have to enjoy themselves, even through tough circumstances,” he says. “You can’t just keep beating the same drum about how bad it is, without recognising also how good it is.”

• Fist Fight is in cinemas from Thursday, February 16