A film review by Craig J. Koban March 27, 2012


2012, R, 106 mins.


Schmidt: Jonah Hill / Jenko: Channing Tatum / Molly Tracey: Brie Larson / Eric Molson: Dave Franco / Mr. Walters: Rob Riggle / Capt. Dickson: Ice Cube

Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller / Written by Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill, based on the television series

Big screen remakes of small screen shows are so pathetically dime-a-dozen that I’ve simply lost track over the years.  When it comes to film adaptations of past gritty police procedural shows there are two distinct approaches that can be taken: (a) lovingly and faithfully appropriate the show’s serious premise and overall tone or (b) capture the essence of the show, but radically retool it as a broad action/comedy that takes its once solemn material and imbues it with some satiric energy.  21 JUMP STREET largely adheres to the latter formula for adaptations. 

Akin to STARSKY AND HUTCH from a few years back, this film version of the former late 80’s/early 90’s crime drama – well known during its time for its grittiness and willingness to tackle serious social ills – absconds from the dramatic gravity of its antecedent and instead goes for all-out hilarity.  Taking a relic from TV’s past and slavishly re-capturing its weighty self-importance might have come off as unintentional funny, so the makers of 21 JUMP STREET have taken the logical creative course by just making the film intentional hysterical.  It certainly respects the basic premise of the show (a squad of young looking cops go undercover to investigate crimes in high schools and other teen-centric hangouts), but 21 JUMP STREET seems to have a wink-wink understanding of the sheer redundancy of movie remakes of TV shows while affectionately lampooning teen and cop film conventions for maximum guffaws.    

Best of all, the film works splendidly as an amusing odd-couple picture.  The odd couple in question are Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) who are shown in the film’s breezy opening flashback scene as two polar opposite high school students.  Schmidt is the prototypical nerdy and overly anxious outsider that’s uncomfortable within his own skin, whereas Jenko is the handsome, athletic, intellectually challenged, and popular-with-the-ladies jock.  The pair, once social rivals in high school, become very quick BFFs while at a police academy several years later, especially when they realize that they can help one another overcome their respective challenges in the program (Schmidt needs guidance on the physical training to become a cop and Jenko needs help in his studies).   

The pair do graduate and are hopeful for a career of being (as Jenko calls it) “total badasses,” but their hopes are dashed when they are delegated to boring bicycle patrol duty (“I really thought that this job would have more car chases and explosions in it,” Jenko sheepishly deadpans).  After what should have been a routine bust of some drug dealers that goes horribly afoul for them (largely because Jenko idiotically did not remember to precisely read the perp his Miranda Rights), Jenko and Schmidt are surprised when their boss re-assigns them for another job, the "Jump Street Squad" named after the abandoned church located on 21 Jump Street that serves as the group’s base of operations.    



When the hapless duo arrives for the first day of their new assignment they are greeted by their perpetually angry captain, Dickson (a never-been-funnier Ice Cube) that takes great vulgar lengths to constantly relay how disposable his new recruits are.  He explains to them that they are to go undercover as high school students - because they supposedly look young – and infiltrate a student drug dealer's inner circle, find out who his suppliers are and apprehend them.   They both are given new identities and are enrolled in classes that would best suit their mental and physical assets, but an early mix-up at school has them swapping identities: Schmidt is assigned classes that would benefit a dumb-dumb like Gym and Drama) and Jenko is thrown into courses like Chemistry and is forced to wallow with the class' high geek population.   

Along the way, though, 21JUMP STREET kind of refreshingly works against high school film conventions: part of the merriment in the film is derived from Schmidt and Jenko adapting and beginning to like their new friends and surroundings that they would have otherwise avoided like the plague when they were high school students.  Things get a bit thorny for Schmidt when he becomes more popular by the day and gets in close with the school’s chief drug dealer (played by Dave Franco, brother of James, who has a slimy charm playing his adolescent criminal that also happens to be a tree-hugging environmentalist).  It gets even thornier for Schmidt when he becomes really close with the dealer’s girlfriend (Brie Larson), who becomes a sort of surrogate high school love interest that he never had before.   

Like the films of Judd Apatow, 21 JUMP STREET is both aggressively raunchy and obsessively foul mouthed while, at the same time, maintaining a sweet sentimentality with the central friendship between its two main characters.  The verbal riffs come fast and furious in the film as it progresses from one outlandish, profane, and seemingly spontaneous set piece to the next.  What the film really does well is marry its coarseness and slapstick appeal with a sly and subversive attack on modern action film clichés.  21 JUMP STREET fully acknowledges the sheer absurdity of the overblown aesthetic of, say, a Michael Bay, as shown in car chase sequence between the heroes and a biker gang that goes to great lengths to have things crashing into conveniently placed fuel tanker trucks and other highly explosive obstacles…to only have no explosions occur (a fireball does come when a vehicle comes careening into a truck of chickens).  Beyond that, this film also shrewdly sends-up how so many other films use actors that are too woefully old to be playing high schoolers; Tatum is 31 and Hill is 28, and school officials and other classmates they come in contact with can’t seem to believe that they're students either. 

The performances are also spot-on: I especially liked Ice Cube methodically playing up to every angry black dude police captain role we’ve seen so many times before (in reference to Franco’s drug dealer, he states, “This kid is white, so people actually give a shit!”).  Jonah Hill – also serving as co-writer and co-producer here – has his reliably strong improvisational wits intact, but the real surprise is the typically mannequin-esque Tatum, an actor that typically has a range and thespian skill that traverses between middling to seriously lacking (he is sometimes so stoic and wooden in dramas that you have to remind yourself that he’s trying to be serious).  Yet, in 21 JUMP STREET he’s so invigoratingly self-deprecating and just brazenly lets loose with a full-throttled, inhibitions-and-vanity-be-damned performance of frequent gut-busting joviality.  Playing dumb and making it legitimately funny as well as endearing does take talent.

21 JUMP STREET may not win over die-hard aficionados of the old TV series, but as a breathlessly funny satire of teen high school angst and 80’s action film chic, it’s seriously enjoyable.  It may perhaps go on far too long (it is 109 minutes, which is about ten minutes or so too long, even though our patience is rewarded with a surprise cameo by one the TV show’s stars during its fever pitched action climax, which – without spoiling anything – shows how the actor is a really, really good sport).  Furthermore, the film contains some decidedly hit-or-miss gags and pratfalls, but its sheer comic energy and go-for-broke determination to make us laugh makes 21 JUMP STREET the rowdiest, most self-aware, and most consistently droll bromantic cop comedy since THE OTHER GUYS.  Hill and Tatum may be, at face value, a horribly incongruent acting pair, but their oddball chemistry wins us over big time.   

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