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21 Jump Street (2012)

March 22, 2012

 

written by: Michael Bacal and Jonah Hill 

produced by: Stephen J. Canell and Neil P. Morit

directed by: Phil Lord and Chris Miller  

rating: R (for crude and sexual content, pervasive language, drug material, teen drinking and some violence)  

runtime: 109 min. 

U.S. release date: March 16, 2012

 

When “21 Jump Street” debuted on Fox back in 1987, I was in the middle of high school and didn’t bother getting into a television show about young-looking cops working undercover in a high school. Even though it was a cool, somewhat edgy and kind of comical show, I was too busy being a high schooler to be concerned with watching slightly older, good-looking actors play people like me. So when word got out that there would be a big-screen adaptation of the show, with it being some kind of action comedy starring Jonah Hill, I became curious. There were definitely funny bits in the trailers, but it felt like so many others that are loaded with the best scenes, leaving the actual movie to be a letdown. Well, thankfully what we have here is a hilariously aware riff on buddy cop action flicks that completely embraces its absurdity and profane craziness.

We first meet Jenko and Schmidt as high school students back in 2005. They fit the stereotypes we all know so well – Jenko is the long-haired, hunky jock and Schmidt is the chunky picked-on nerd with braces. One is dumb as rocks and the other is a brainiac. You shouldn’t have to wonder which one of them that applies to, or if they are best friends.

Fast-forward to present day and we’re reminded that no one really ever leaves high school. Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (Jonah Hill) are still the same, but now they have one thing in common – they’ve both found themselves working their way through the Los Angeles police academy. In order to make up for each other’s weaknesses (book smarts and physical education), the two team-up and help each other graduate, Jenko just barely and Schmidt at the top of his class. The two are jacked and thrilled with themselves, excited to get the chance to get in on some peace-keeping action. Then they get partnered as bicycle park cops. D’oh!

 

 

Well, that doesn’t last long, as the two completely botch up an arrest, making an obnoxious public spectacle of the event, and forgetting to read a weed-smoking perp his Miranda rights. “They always cut away on TV before they finish ‘em”, is Jenko’s excuse for not memorizing them. Their Captain (a hilarious Nick Offerman), explains that they are both getting demoted to an undercover program from the 80s that’s “being revived for a new generation”, mainly because, “they’re completely out of ideas”.

See what they did right there? You saw that a “21 Jump Street” movie and thought “have they totally run out of ideas?” Well, writers Michel Bacall (the recent “Project X” and “Scott Pilgrim  vs. The World”) and Jonah Hill (who also serves as Executive Producer) both know that’s where you’re going and set out to blatantly address it right away, which is just the start of the clever meta approach this movie has. Sure, they use the current trend of: excessive profanity, sex jokes, and improv comedy, but the difference is they know it and they know that you know it as well. This makes the movie amusingly self-aware, knowing how absurd it can be to adapt a TV series and it wants you in on it becomes a refreshing blast.

 

 

They arrive at the Aroma of Christ Church down on Jump Street, home to a Korean Jesus statue (we’ll meet him again later), where they report to Captain Dickson (Ice Cube, having fun) who readily admits he’s the stereotypical Angry Black Captain. He assigns Jenko and Schmidt and other baby-faced (or, as Dickson puts it “Justin Beiber, Miley Cyrus-lookin’ muthas”) to certain high schools in order to crack down on specific crime elements.  They are assigned alias identities as brothers (with the last name Quaid), one with a track star history and the other with an affinity for science. To add believability to it all, they are shacked up at Schmidt’s parent’s home, where the walls are plastered with awkward portraits of the young cop as a boy.

By this time in the movie, directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord (“Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”) are having fun embracing their movie’s R-rated humor, but it’s their lively energy that stands out. The directors have the most fun when the two leads re-enter high school, where we see the screenplay develop into something quite creative and entertaining. Both characters have a building anxiety about returning to high school, acknowledging it as the worst time in their lives. Such vulnerability is a welcome surprise, considering most moviegoers are just  expecting silly action comedy.

There’s also the adults they must contend with at the school – you know, the ones closer to their age? One of Jenko’s teachers (Ellie Kemper) can’t take her eyes of him and the school’s P. E.  teacher (Rob Riggle) is impressed with his muscle tone. And then there’s the drama teacher (Chris Parnell) who is eager to cast Schmidt as Peter Pan after his drug-induced audition. Awkwardness all around.

I’m not going to say how it happens, but seeing Jenko and Schmidt switch the high school stereotypes that they already lived out is a stroke of comic genius. The broad-shouldered athletic Jenko finds himself with the misfits of science, while Schmidt slips in with the popular kids, which happen to be the pseudo eco-conscious cool crowd. They immediately realize that high school isn’t at all like it was back in the day.  You don’t wear your backpack with just one strap anymore and making flippant wisecracks about being gay just isn’t cool (not like it ever was). Who are these Goth kids? Kids are actually interested in studying? And the environment?

 

 

Keeping their mind on their assignment turns out to be a challenging task amid all the fitting in they’ve invested in. Still, there’s a new synthetic drug that teens are taking, one that is fatal for some. It turns out Schmidt’s already has a lead, as his new friend Eric (Dave Franco, brother of you-know-who) winds up being the school’s drug-dealing rich kid. But Schmidt is also building a real friendship with a girl (Brie Larson) in drama class – something he never got a chance to do during his own high school years. In order to prevent this drug from getting out of hand, the cops most overcome their own insecurities that have reawakened and unite to take down the suppliers, without resenting each other in the process.

There are times when “21 Jump Street” relies too heavily on being funny, but there’s no denying that it’s self-referential tone is a goofy good time. The movie is best though when it delivers the looney and kinetic sequences we get when characters are hopped up on this new drug. As the  script makes fun of the traditional genre conventions we’re so used to, we wind up laughing out loud instead of rolling our eyes or losing interest. The car chases and shoot ‘em up action scenes we see here aren’t cliched at all, in fact they’re downright cartoonish with some of them turning into great running gags.

The recently Oscar-nominated Hill, who lost about 50 lbs. for this role, has proven his comedy chops in movies like “Superbad” and “Get Him to the Greek”, so it’s Tatum who will be the real standout here. Not to me, though. Since first seeing Tatum in “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints”, he’s been on my radar as one to watch. Granted, I never thought he’d be this good at comedy and eager to be a fool, but it turns out to be more of a confirmation for me than a surprise. Seeing his character get all excited about launching rockets with his new nerdy friends and getting his feelings hurt due to his social status, adds a refreshing dimension to the movie.

Instead of making the movie solely about adults trying to blend in with teens, Lord and Miller smartly play up some fine characterization – a rarity for an action comedy.  Fans of the original series will be rewarding with some special scenes, but most of all “21 Jump Street” is just crazy fun and far more enjoyable than I ever though it would be.

 

 

 

RATING: ***

 

 

 

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Lauri permalink
    March 25, 2012 2:38 pm

    Your review is spot-on, David! I agree with everything. Let me say that Channing Tatum was a totally pleasant surprise for me. I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen him in anything, but I had no expectations of him having such great comedic timing. That the movie runs with the “we don’t take ourselves seriously” theme is why it is so good. I remember seeing the trailers ages ago and thinking this looked so stupid. For once, the trailers didn’t show the best parts of the movie… and for that, I am happy. I left the theater with a smile on my face.

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