When I first heard about 21 Jump Street, I couldn’t be more disinterested. I pegged the film as another in a long line of unnecessary remakes of 80s properties, nothing more than desperate grasping by studios to conjure and capitalize on nostalgia. Turns out my preconceived notions were proven incorrect; this movie could care less about nostalgia because it’s far more interested in being a post-modern comedic commentary on both the buddy cop genre and the teen high school movie. It’s action-packed, smartly written, and downright hilarious at times; in short, 21 Jump Street is worth taking the leap.
Phil Lord and Chris Miller previously directed 2009’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, which became one of my favorite animated films of all time after only one viewing. (Seriously: if you in any way value my opinion – and I assume you do if you’re reading this – seek out Cloudy immediately, regardless of your age. It’s fantastic.) 21 Jump Street is the duo’s first attempt at a live action film, and they absolutely knock it out of the park. Unlike their Academy Award-winning contemporary Andrew Stanton, who directed instant animated classics Finding Nemo and Wall*E and then went on to make John Carter, Lord and Miller are able to coach memorable performances out of their lead actors and successfully transition their comedic style seamlessly into a live action arena.
It helps that this script is great; Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) were in different social strata in high school, but seven years later, they become friends on the police force. They’re mostly inept, failing to read the Miranda rights to apprehended criminals and yearning for explosions, car chases, and “a lifetime of being badass motherf*ckers.” They’re more than a bit reminiscent of Nick Frost’s character in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz. Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World writer Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill wrote 21 Jump Street, and their approach of Hollywood’s current remake craze is to address it head on; when our heroes are transferred to a new division that’s resurrecting a previous program from the 80s which places young-looking cops undercover in high school, their captain laments the lack of originality from the higher-ups, claiming they’ve “run out of ideas.” It’s a direct acknowledgement of the film’s purported reason for existence, and a fun way to let the audience know that the filmmakers are in on the joke of the movie as a whole.
Tossed back into high school to locate the supplier of a drug ring, Schmidt and Jenko find their roles reversed both literally and figuratively. Jenko is the dumb jock with a good heart, and he accidentally mixes up their new secret identities and must take Schmidt’s course load filled with band and chemistry and things he knows nothing about. Schmidt, the intellectual nerd when he was actually in high school, becomes the stereotypical popular kid because of the way trends have evolved since he and Jenko were there the first time: smart kids who read comics and care about the environment are the new breed of cool kids, leaving the once-popular Jenko confused and befriending the school’s tech-savvy nerds. It’s a cool play against audience expectations, something this movie does frequently and often during its runtime.
This film allows Jonah Hill to transition from the seriousness of Moneyball back to his comedic roots, but the true standout here is Channing Tatum. He shines as he plays into the public perception that he’s an oafish dope, giving people who previously had no interest in his work (read: me) a reason to take notice and keep an eye on him during his future projects. His comedic timing is spot-on, and he’s an unlikely-but-perfect foil for Hill in this film. The story gets a bit conventional near the end, taking them down a well-tread path of testing their friendship before preparing for the big climactic showdown, but the film transitions from point to point so smoothly that it’s hard to get upset about the occasional slip into conventionality. Plus, the jokes are profane and really funny throughout, with people like Rob Riggle, Ice Cube, Jake Johnson, Ellie Kemper, Chris Parnell, and Nick Offerman peppered in to keep you laughing from start to finish.
There are also some surprisingly heartwarming moments mixed into all the vulgarity, which really grounds the film and gives it some emotional stakes when the characters get into any danger. Dave Franco (yep, James’ brother) and Brie Larson are both solid as the kids Schmidt befriends in school, and it says a lot about this movie that I was so caught up in the laughs that I barely thought about the weirdness of Schmidt’s love interest being a high school girl. Bonus points are awarded for having a unique “tripping” sequence when the main characters are forced to take drugs, and extra bonus points go to the marketing team, who, in the trailers, gave us a sense of the film’s tone but actually switched up scenes for fresh laughs. 21 Jump Street is a dose of much-needed creativity in these early months of the year, and will likely remain one of my favorite comedies as we move forward through 2012. Until next time…