Movie Review: 21 Jump Street
Director: Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Reviewed: 1 August 2012
The new Channing Tatum-Jonah Hill buddy cop retro-television show reboot 21 Jump Street pays homage to a world of mid-eighties undercover police activity where a young Johnny Depp went undercover in a local high school in order to infiltrate gangs, bust drug activity, and expose what was really going on in America's high schools. I think. I don't know because I never watched 21 Jump Street, partly because I was a little too young for it, partly because it never outweighed my desire to watch Cheers or Night Court on WGN. And Hunter. And some of that weird Nick-At-Nite stuff I watched. It wasn't a show my parents watched (that was Wiseguy, L.A. Law), and I don't have any preconceived notions going into this film besides the fact that historically, not many films made from television shows happen to be very memorable or strong. Of course, there was Goodfellas made from Wiseguy, and I'm a fan of Michael Mann's brooding, moody Miami Vice with Colin Farrell and Jaime Foxx, though I don't think that anyone else is. The Flintstones was no good, I saw unpromising portions of the A-Team, and I'm still waiting on NYPD Blue: The Movie. However, the concept of recycling an 80's television show, stripping it down to its essential parts, and rotating in bright, funny actors works splendidly in this film, one of the best comedies of the year so far.
21 Jump Street, directed by two men and having five writing/story credits, feels like a bit of a mishmash, a stew of graphic violence, wonderful obscenity, nonsensical car chases, skilled high school satire, funny moments with Ice Cube as Captain Dickson who supervises the undercovers, as well as some very physical comedy involving Tatum and Hill. As a stew of a film, 21 Jump Street works because at its core it is funny. It made me laugh quite a bit, and the interplay, the chemistry, the bond between Jonah Hill as Schmidt and Channing Tatum as Jenko works. They both are having a really good time making this film, riffing off of each other, sliding over cars, pumping shotguns, wearing tuxes to prom, and playing two characters who deeply desire a chance to redo high school.
There is the strange sight of a guy who looks like James Franco, talks like James Franco, but isn't James Franco (played by his brother Dave Franco). There are biker gangs and potent drugs, a forgettable female supporting character that seems an afterthought in a bromance of this kind. There is the wonderful Rob Riggle as an inappropriate coach, a fun, raunchy Ellie Kemper as a teacher, and the always entertaining Nick Offerman as a stoic Deputy Chief who after chewing the leads out for botching an arrest by not knowing the Miranda Rights ("Did you just say you have the right to be an attorney?") announces, "We're reviving a canceled undercover project from the '80s and revamping it for modern times. The people behind this lack creativity and they've run out of ideas, so what they do now is just recycle shit from the past and hope that nobody will notice." A hilarious line reading by Offerman, but by getting in front of this concept, taking the air out of its criticism, the film smartly allows itself the possibility of being wry and self-aware of its own ridiculousness and origins. Similarly, the brilliant move to switch Schmidt and Jenko's roles in high school results in some of the best moments in the film as Hill plays the jock and Tatum, the brains: Schmidt's leaping through the air as Peter Pan in a theater production; Jenko announcing "Kneel before Zod!" to enter the Science nerds lab room where he struggles to understand covalent bonds; Schmidt's faux-aggressiveness as he takes center stage in a social scene he would have hidden from in high school as well as his supposed Track prowess. The jealousy between the characters is fun, a party scene and its aftermath have their moments, and the level of fun that the directors, writers, and cast seem to be having is palpable. Tatum is a good actor and quite funny, and Hill continues to do his fast-talking thing, which is richly comedic. What a fun pairing of talents.
A comedy is supposed to make you laugh, and 21 Jump Street delivers. Fun lead chemistry and raw, dark humor mix together in an addictive way. With little to no expectations going in (and zero investment because I never watched the show), I was pleasantly surprised. Recommended.