21 Jump Street (Review)
21 Jump Street successfully shows that even the most ridiculous ideas can be turned into something completely fun.
Score: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Rated: R for crude and sexual content, pervasive language, drug material, teen drinking and some violence
It’s a common ridicule of Hollywood that the film industry is so out of ideas, or so cautious to try new ones, that studio executives will reach as far as they can into the proverbial barrel to get licenses–licenses that are sometimes so old that people may barely remember them. Sometimes, there is a total reinvention of the franchise, which is usually met with an incredibly venomous response from the original’s fanbase. Films such as the moderately enjoyable Starsky & Hutch comedy reimagining and the crude, dreadful Dukes of Hazzard are two examples. Since those two films are generally fairly disliked, a comedic spin on an 80’s Johnny Depp drama seems like the worst of ideas. Surprisingly, however, it seems that having a strong team both in front of and behind the camera can work wonders for even the most insane concepts.
The film opens in high school, 2005–nerdy, bleached-hair, braces-equipped Schmidt (Jonah Hill) can’t even ask a girl to the prom without choking and stuttering, while idiotic, burly jock Jenko (Channing Tatum) watches with glee. Fast forward to them enrolling in police academy together by coincidence. Realizing that Schmidt is good at the written exams but severely out of shape, while Jenko is physically fit but a miserable failure at the exams, they decide to become friends and help each other out. Upon graduating successfully, however, their dreams of being badass cops for life are dashed when they are assigned duty at the park on bicycles. When their first accidental bust goes completely awry due to their own misguided machismo and poor common sense, they are reassigned to an old revived protocol called “21 Jump Street”, in which they must pose as high school students to infiltrate a drug ring.
Upon arriving at the church that serves as the secret headquarters for the organization, they are immediately met, and berated, by the foulmouthed “Captain Sassy” Dickson (Ice Cube), who gives them their assignments. Of course, upon arriving at school, they forget who is supposed to have which identity, culminating in Jenko getting put into AP Chemistry and Schmidt attending Drama. Both of them are remarkably out of their element, and Jenko is appalled to find that everyone that he used to bully when he was in high school is now what is considered “cool”.
21 Jump Street has a little something for everyone, really–it’s a high school comedy that dabbles fairly generously in physical & screwball comedy, action comedy, and vulgarity. Best of all, it’s also a satisfying slice of meta-comedy, poking fun not only at the common expectation for things to explode during action movie chases (during one of the film’s standout scenes), but the fact that the the 80s television show is even being remade at all, with the police captain saying in reference to the revival of the undercover program, “They’re out of ideas; they’re just recycling the same shit over and over and hoping we don’t notice.” It was an extremely amusing little bit of referential humor to how Hollywood is strongly against fresh concepts. It also plays around a lot with audience expectations, although the way in which it does this is simply too much fun to give away. Suffice it to say, it is this kind of humor that makes the movie so much fun and rewarding to watch.
It helps that the film, though being set in high school, doesn’t ever really feel particularly mean-spirited. Yes, it’s extremely vulgar, but the movie never feels like it’s going out if its way just to push buttons and cross lines. The only openly gay character is not a flamboyant stereotype, and the smart students are portrayed as clever hackers rather than nerdy punching bags. Although it is a hard R with plenty of swearing and nasty humor (including ample references to a certain male reproductive organ), the bulk of the film’s comedy is built around silly dialogue and an overall goofy vibe.
That goofy vibe is owed almost entirely to Tatum and Hill, who have some of the best chemistry I’ve seen probably since The Other Guys with Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg. Much as Wahlberg did in that film, Tatum proves that he’s really great at comedy. His timing here, particularly when squaring off with Hill, is impeccable, moving the film along at a breezy pace with just enough time to laugh and catch one’s breath before the next line gets fired off. This is a buddy comedy through and through, and one of the best ones to come along in quite a while, to boot. There’s a genuine sense of brotherly love between the two, and neither truly inhabits a particular static stereotype, making for fluid character dynamics that feel natural. They are assisted by a strong supporting cast that includes Rob Riggle, Chris Parnell, and Ellie Kemper as some of the high school’s very unusual teachers.
Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who most recently directed the flashy and funny animated film Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, display once again an eye for comedy and a talent for flashy, creative direction. When describing the different stages of the drug, there’s a cutaway of a super eye-popping, neon-colored intertitle displaying the stage. It was a fun little flourish that made the movie a little more exciting visually. One of the best scenes in the movie, which put me in tears of laughter, makes creative use of editing, sound, and costuming to give us a perspective on what the pair are experiencing while on the drug. Again, Lord and Miller skillfully navigate many different styles of comedy, sneaking in subtle or unexpected jokes whenever they can, extending scenes beyond what one would have expected, and even finding time for a handful of great cameos that I won’t dare spoil here.
In short, it’s an enormously creative two hours of fun. It blasts apart all expectations of being terrible and delivers a clever, self-aware reinvention of the classic series while also not hesitating to poke fun at not only the tendency of Hollywood to continuously remake movies and shows (and, by association, its own existence), but also the action genre’s own ridiculous tropes. The team of talented writers and producers (which included Jonah Hill), as well as the Lord/Miller creative team, make a distinctly strange, yet undeniably energetic and hilarious comedy with enough enthusiastic affection to give it a heart as well.