21 Jump Street (2012)

3 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Remember in the buddy-cop movie-spoof “The Other Guys” when Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg are blown out of proportion after an explosion nearby? Remember how Will Ferrell complained, “How do they walk away in movies without flinching when it explodes behind them?! There’s no way! The movie industry is completely irresponsible for the way they portray explosions!” So sue me—I didn’t laugh at that. The picking-out of the clichés in action movies (though mainly in horror movies as well) has itself become a tired cliché. Quite odd that I’m criticizing what the screenplay was criticizing because it criticized them too much. It was fresh before, like the original clichés themselves. But nowadays, whenever a movie tries to do that, it doesn’t quite work and I wind up saying, “Weak.”

That is why within the supposed-clever satire of the big-screen adaptation of the late-1980s/early-1990s TV show “21 Jump Street,” there was a scene that really made me smile—it involves a police chief moving the movie’s central characters, two misfit cops, to a place that was tried before in the late-1980s and returning to business because “originality is gone and no one has any good ideas.” (It’s sad to admit that I’m paraphrasing; I should’ve written the line down in my phone immediately after I heard it.) It’s no secret that that line is a direct reference to the movie itself. The movie is based on a popular show called “21 Jump Street” that ran from 1987 to 1991. Now for early 2012, Hollywood executives must have thought it’d be great to greenlight if it was a very loose adaptation—not a drama like the original show, but a mashup of screwball comedy. I’m not saying I had a problem with that—I was quite interested when I heard that this new version of “21 Jump Street” was taking the more comedic approach. But that’s mainly because—and I’m just going to come out and say it—I never really liked the show. Even though a lot of people are fond of it and it jump-started its star Johnny Depp’s high-profile acting career, I just felt that the show itself was pretty bland. (But to be fair, I’ve only seen the first few episodes on DVD—maybe the show got better, but I don’t know.)

But anyway, back to the review of the movie. “21 Jump Street” has about as many tongue-in-cheek approaches to certain buddy-cop movie clichés that you would expect, and its satire is about as subtle as “The Simpsons,” but I must say I got more stupid laughs from this movie than I did with “The Other Guys.” “21 Jump Street” does pick out the clichés and isn’t afraid to do so. As a result of a merrily vulgar screenplay, there are jokes that don’t work, but luckily, most jokes that do. And more importantly, I laughed. That is the purpose of a comedy, and I did laugh quite a lot during this big-screen version of “21 Jump Street.”

“21 Jump Street” stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum as cops Schmidt and Jenko. In high school, they were complete opposites—Schmidt was a shy nerd; Jenko was a dumb jock. But seven years later, they meet again at police academy and become good buddies, despite their differing personalities. Schmidt and Jenko expect chases and explosions to come into their lives, but as of now, they’re stuck riding on bicycles for park patrol. A bust goes wrong—Schmidt is too nervous to fire his gun, and when they finally catch a suspect, the arrest isn’t precise because Jenko doesn’t remember the Miranda Rights. (Apparently, you have the right to be an attorney.) Schmidt and Jenko are then sent to an undercover unit called “21 Jump Street” (you know, the project that is starting over again because “nobody has any good ideas anymore”), where they’re assigned by their new captain (Ice Cube, consistently funny as the angry boss) to investigate a dangerous new drug being sold at a high school. This means they’ll have to infiltrate the school, masquerading not just as brothers…but as high school students.

These two 20-something-year-old guys make look to old to be in high school (and that’s brought up in the movie sometimes, too), but let’s face it—they’re able to keep their dignity in sense of appearance, which is more than I can say for Johnny Depp, who in the first episode of the original show had to dress like an 80s punk. At least these guys, in this day and age, can dress casually and fit in. Anyway, Schmidt is supposed to be the nerd in AP Chemistry and band class, while Jenko is supposed to be in drama class, but due to a mixup on their part, the roles are reversed. This leads to some pretty funny situations where these guys, posing as teenagers, are in the wrong place at the wrong time, and just attempting to wing it.

This is a preposterous premise, but to me, it’s fun to see an adult go back to high school in a comedy under these certain circumstances—I guess that’s why I liked “17 Again.” I don’t know why I like this gimmick, seeing as how I’m just a couple years out of high school, and wouldn’t dream of going back myself (not yet, anyway), but it does show promise for a comedy. In this movie, Schmidt and Jenko throw their responsibilities as police officers away just to find the right ways to fit in—they throw a party at Schmidt’s parents’ house, Schmidt tries out for the school musical with a popular girl (Brie Larson, with a sweet smile), and the two guys even, in one of the funniest scenes in the movie, are forced to take the new drug that’s being dealt at the school, just to prove to the smooth dealer (Dave Franco, smooth but kind of weak villain) that they’re not “narcs.” One of the more appealing subplots involves Jenko as he falls in with a trio of nerdy outcasts, who are good kids and resourceful enough to help with the bust. This is also one of those movie high schools where authority figures are either clueless or invisible. There doesn’t seem to be much control in this school—the principal is only seen in a couple of scenes. There’s a chemistry teacher (Ellie Kemper) who takes a sexual interest in Jenko, a drama teacher (Chris Parnell) in his own world, and a gym teacher (Rob Riggle), who’s about as dumb as they come. Am I crazy or does that make Schmidt and Jenko, these misfit odd-couple cops, the more mature people in the school?

There are a few things in “21 Jump Street” that don’t work. A few satirical lines don’t reach the pinnacle for good laughs, the addition of Schmidt’s parents who still treat Schmidt like a little boy doesn’t work to its full potential, and the chases and explosions, when they do come, aren’t as funny, save for a few effective tongue-in-cheek approaches. But there are more laughs to be had when it focuses on the two guys as they continue their way back into high school. And there’s also a hint of sweetness in this friendship between Schmidt and Jenko. As played by Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, they click well together and form an authentic friendship among the ridiculousness of the script.

It’s a funny thing about Jonah Hill’s career. In his first few roles, he’s been known to be an obnoxious presence that you either accept as a character or just want to shut up. I think, since the comedy “Get Him to the Greek” in 2010, Hill has found a way to relax on-screen and connect with the audience (and still be funny) without having to scream every other line in anger. That served him well in the indie comedy-drama “Cyrus” and especially well in the sports drama “Moneyball,” which garnered him an Oscar nomination. Now, after the dreary return to obnoxiousness in “The Sitter,” he’s relaxed (and slimmed down, as well) for “21 Jump Street” while still being likable and pretty funny.

Channing Tatum hasn’t shown a lot of promise in movies—he usually comes off as pretty stiff. But now, people have found a simple solution—put the guy in a comedy! Tatum is hilarious in this movie. His approach to everything he doesn’t understand and yet has to follow through with gets a laugh just by his attitude. Tatum is willing to try something new here, and as a result, he’s charismatic and pretty funny. Put him in more comedies.

The final action climax is where the movie almost lost me, but there are still enough gags and satirical references to get me through it, complete with a fun payoff for a setup having to do with a chemistry experiment.

“21 Jump Street” is a nice surprise, given where it was thought of. I guess someone really did run out of ideas and decided to borrow the premise from a popular TV show and bring it to the big screen. Well, if you’re going a different approach, be sure to have a lot of fun with it.


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