21 Jump Street ran on TV from 1987-1991 and is mainly known as serving as a launching pad for eventual mega movie star Johnny Depp… and Richard Greico too. Youthful looking police officers infiltrated high schools and tackled topical issues of the day (what snap bracelet goes best with my high-waisted jeans?). Why would anyone want to make this movie, let alone comic actor Jonah Hill? Surprising in just about every way, especially when it comes to overall quality, the 21 Jump Street movie is not just a great comedy but also a great movie. How the hell did this happen, Movie Gods?
Officer Schmidt (Hill) is smart but shrimpy (which is saying something considering how dangerous Hill’s weight has been before). Officer Jenko (Channing Tatum) is a stud but pretty dimwitted when it comes to tests. The two form a partnership and get assigned as bicycle cops, not exactly the position of command and authority they were expecting. After a few screw-ups, including failing to read a suspect his Miranda rights (“You… have the right… to be an attorney”), the duo gets bounced to an old undercover program at, you guessed it, 21 Jump Street. The pair is supposed to pose as high school students and find out who’s supplying teenagers a dangerous new club drug. Much has changed since Schmidt and Jenko were in high school together, and both of their profiles were accidentally swapped, meaning Jenko is given AP chemistry and the higher level classes, and Schmidt is given gym and acting courses, where he’s supposed to work his way into the popular circles. Molly (Brie Larson) is a gal in that popular inner circle and Schmidt struggles to accept that a pretty, smart, popular girl might actually “like like” him.
I knew I was in for something special when the movie itself lambastes the very idea of a 21 Jump Street movie, with the police chief (Parks and Recreation’s Nick Offerman) ridiculing the idea of unoriginal nitwits recycling something old that has name recognition and hoping the public will be too dumb to care. The movie beats the audience to the punch every time, mocking the absurdity of its own premise and plot points (many characters note how old Jenko appears). I should have expected more from screenwriter Michael Bacall (co-writer of the Scott Pilgrim movie adaptation) and especially from directors Phil Lord and Chris Hill, the same pair whose rambunctious comedic verve radiated from every frame of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and their brilliant short-lived animated MTV show, Clone High. This movie had me laughing a lot and had me laughing hard, doubling over, with-tears-in-my-eyes laughter at points. Dickson spouts, “Some kid overdoses on drugs. And because he’s white, people actually give a shit,” showing that a movie with a mind-blowing number of male genitalia jokes can provide a few shrewd jabs of social commentary. There’s a great bit where on their first day back in school, Jenko points out the various school cliques. Then he gets to a group of students in skinny jeans, thrift store clothes, and floppy hats, and he looks puzzled. “I don’t know what those kids are?” Ha, because hipsters didn’t exist back in his (my) day.
21 Jump Street is cheeky, rowdy, quick-witted and playful in the best sense of an action comedy. It’s got fish-out-of-water moments as the duo struggle to fit in with a different high school setting. The one-liners and riffs can be gut-busters, but the film does an even better job layering oddball gags (Korean Jesus), loony slapstick, fun but telling character moments (Schmidt not knowing how to end a prayer: “The end, right? ‘The end’?”), strong setups that have stronger payoffs (using the reading of Miranda rights as a genuine emotional climax), and an overall raucous, anarchic spirit.
Here’s one sequence in particular that shows off the film’s clever comedic chops. The film finds a way to satirize the tropes of action movies, particularly buddy cop movies, with such nimble precision. Schmidt and Jenko are on the run but their car chase keeps butting heads with the fabricated reality of Hollywood movie chases. For one, they keep finding themselves getting stuck in traffic on the highway. This forces them to have to keep abandoning cars and finding a new set of wheels ahead of the gridlock. Then, as the bad guys chase them down on motorcycles, the chase causes all sorts of chaotic collateral damage, including oil trucks riddled with bullet holes and dripping the flammable substance all over the road. Then one of the motorcycles skids into the flammable muck, and our heroes wince in preparation of the expected explosion, and then nothing happens. “Huh. I really thought that was going to explode,” one of them remarks casually. And this setup is repeated again, denying us the explosive equation that action movies have pummeled into our brains (car + any tap of force = humungous fireball), and there is a payoff to this comedic tweak on the cliché, and it is silly and terrifically funny. Plus, I haven’t even mentioned that both Schmidt and Jenko are dressed in silly outfits and begin their car chase in a driver’s ed car. This sequence is just one example of the anarchic, robust, and self-aware comedic attitude that the movie flaunts.
But more than being a hysterical action picture, 21 Jump Street works even better because at its core is a level of sweetness, a satisfying mixture of lewd and heart like the best Judd Apatow ventures. It’s a bromance of epic proportions even by buddy cop standards, the old school bromance vehicle of its day. The guys go back to high school and the movie’s bright switcheroo puts the characters in opposite social spheres, with Schmidt with the cool kids and Jenko struggling with the social misfits and bottom-dwellers, a.k.a. nerds. Of course the whole class assignment also shows the façade of being cool in high school. The movie could have mined this well-worn stereotypical class conflict with ease, but instead it decides to use its contrived scenario as a jumpstart for the guy’s emotional growth. The lessons may be simplistic (perils of ego, believe in yourself, teamwork, personal responsibility) but that doesn’t make them bad lessons, and the fact that the flick seriously uses covalent bonds as a metaphor, and does so in an almost poignant fashion, is worth applauding. The relationship between Schmidt and Jenko engages the audience, and we root for them even when they’re behaving like jerks. They’re misfits who are doubted and reprimanded, which make us hope for their eventual success even more. Refreshingly, the movie doesn’t put them in opposing camps in high school. Schmidt was a dweeb and Jenko was a dumb jock, but that doesn’t mean they needed to be adversarial. When they regroup in the police academy, they form a genuine partnership, realizing they can assist one another. They form an actual friendship and they’re both better cops, and better characters, together.
Hill and Tatum have preposterously good chemistry together as a comic duo. Hill, a co-writer himself, reportedly had to remain steadfast to convince Tatum to join forces, and thank god he stuck it out. Hill’s (Moneyball) already a comic pro at this point, though this role tones down his comical rancor and ups the spaz awkwardness. Tatum (The Vow) is the true revelation. Man does this guy have really great comedic skills; a sharp, instinctive sense of timing, a pliable physicality, and a genial charisma that doesn’t demand solo attention. He’s good at playing dumb without going overboard. He’s not just good, he’s flat-out terrific. Larson (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) is an adorable and plucky love interest, sure of herself, down to earth, and accessibly quirky. The supporting cast shines in their small roles, notable Ice Cube (Lottery Ticket) as the typical brash and loud police captain, Ellie Kemper (Bridesmaids), in her randiest roll yet, as a chemistry teacher awkwardly flirting with the hunky Jenko, Dave Franco (Fright Night) as an eco-friendly drug dealer, Rob Riggle (The Other Guys) as an aggressive gym teacher, and a special cameo that’s worth leaving unspoiled.
21 Jump Street has some weaker points, namely when the action ramps up it’s pretty mundane when it’s not being funny, but the faults are minor. This is a silly, shrewd, salacious, and outright thrill of giddy entertainment, a comic blast. Hill and Tatum have a wonderful comedic dynamic and the clever screenplay gives them plenty to do with their talents. I didn’t think it was possible to adapt the cheesy TV show into a worthwhile studio comedy, but Hill and company have exceeded every expectation. 21 Jump Street isn’t the most nuanced or subtle comedy, though I will argue spiritedly that it has plenty of smarts in all the right places, but it’s an affectionate, witty, and rambunctious night out at the movies that will be hard to beat this spring.
Nate’s Grade: A-