Monday, March 19, 2012

21 Jump Street (Phil Lord & Chris Miller, 2012)

21 Jump Street is such an unnecessary remake that even the film itself acknowledges its own pointlessness. It's a moment of upfront honesty rarely seen in the current sausage grinder of audience-insulting retreads that prevent original material from being produced at the expense of works with a (theoretically, at least) built-in audience. Yet what makes the movie such an unexpected delight is that it never lapses into the lazy self-awareness waved around weak films like incense swung from a thurible. Rather than merely name-checking its weaknesses and moving on, 21 Jump Street tinkers with conventions to believably update its subject matter while affectionately parodying the '80s buddy cop tropes that fueled the original TV show.

As such, it better positions itself to mock the old and the new, commenting equally on classic action film stereotypes and modern stylistic elements. Like Hot Fuzz, 21 Jump Street so faithfully embodies its targets that it winds up an excellent buddy cop film in its own right. How good is the chemistry between its two mutually and self-deprecating leads? So good that I emerged liking, if not loving, Channing Tatum. God help us all.

Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, previously known for their excellent animated film Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, waste little time establishing their story. They hilariously plow through the usual first act of a buddy cop movie in what feels like seconds, pitting portly and nerdy Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and handsome but thick Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum) as enemies in high school before uniting them as the best of friends in police academy moments later. The filmmakers know that the audience is used to all the initial "tension erodes into grudging respect and friendship" of buddy cop films as spares us the perfunctory steps and gets right to the story. As if to further drive home the point that such setups don't need to waste all that time on the buddy dynamic, the montage manages to generate a palpable bond between the two leads in minutes, effectively grounding everything that follows over the next hour and 40 minutes.

After the two rookies botch a drug bust—Schmidt from his unwillingness to shoot a charging perp, Jenko for failing to read his captured suspect the Miranda rights—their captain reassigns them to a restarted undercover program on 21 Jump Street, making a sharp joke about the inanity of reviving old, outdated things and hoping no one will be the wiser. Now under the command of a foul-mouthed captain who embraces his stereotyped portrayal as an angry black police leader (Ice Cube in an inspired performance), Schmidt and Jenko must pose as high schoolers to uncover the suppliers behind a new drug craze sweeping their old alma mater.

Riffing on the way remakes transplant older material to the current day without significantly changing any elements, the film's portrayal of high school cliques messes with the two cops. Expecting to find the usual bands of jocks and nerds and goths, they instead find new groups of people that look as unfamiliar as aliens. And even the pre-existing cliques have shifted with the times: the popular kids are no longer the tough jocks but the privileged teenagers aspiring to the best colleges, and they have little use for Jenko's masculine posturing. In fact, all that his tough-guy antics accomplish is nearly getting him accused of a hate crime before his first day of school even begins.

The film moves swiftly into its blitzkrieg of comedy, and I missed whole minutes of the film simply because I was still laughing at what had come before. Yet I was pleasantly surprised at the time the filmmakers took to ground their jokes in the sort of thoughtful consideration one hardly expects from a remake of a T.V. show. Schmidt's and Jenko's laziness causes them to mix up their fake identities, forcing Schmidt to go as the athletic all-star and Jenko to attend as the honor-class high-achiever. That's a great joke in its own right, and one the film mines for a length of time, but what makes it even better is that Lord and Miller use it to comment on what someone might do if they got the chance to go back to high school and how they might do it differently. Schmidt, such a loser in high school, now enjoys a surge of popularity, while Jenko finds that his meat-headed approach is out of date (in fairness, it was technically out of date during the period they were in high school the first time, but I think that's the joke).

Their varied experiences in returning to the point in people's lives that seems to define them no matter how badly we all want to move on spills over into other areas. The film never slams on the brakes to examine male insecurity, but it's constantly at work in Schmidt's and Jenko's behavior, be it their shifting braggadocio and nervousness in school or out in the field. Some gags occasionally toy with the easy jokes of homophobia in "bromance," but chiefly the film runs on how these men feel about each other, and how that makes them feel about themselves. The film never forces this particular line of thought, but its presence is as welcome as the humor

And damn is it funny. It's a hard thing to praise a comedy; you can't really talk about its jokes without spoiling them, and they won't be as funny written out anyway. But every scene has a laugh in it, mainly thanks to the fantastic cast. Tatum and Hill are both hysterically invested in their roles and deeply self-deprecating, but the supporting players are as good. Ice Cube nearly steals the show as Dickson, always fuming at the bumbling pair in a way that seems like a straight trope and a gentle parody of same. Brie Larson plays Schmidt's love interest, Molly, with a sarcastic bite that doesn't leave her feeling like a tacked-on addition, while Dave Franco digs into Eric to tear apart the spoiled, self-sure rich boy while also adding flecks of empathy that prevents his deliberately irritating performance from being truly grating or cruel. Rob Riggle also deserves a shout-out for his scenes, all of which unleash his psychotic, jubilant, and psychotically jubilant persona onto the screen.

And on the rare occasion when the pure energy of the actors' isn't carrying the film, the visual gags, some of them so quick you have to be on the lookout for them, fill the gaps. A ridiculous chase scene has huge jokes like the recurring bit about things the cops expect will explode remaining inert, but also subtler touches like a billboard that simply reads "Billboard" or a pistol located in the glove compartment of a pink VW bug. And for a film that parodies well-known conventions, there are many jokes that break outside expectations, especially an out-of-left-field reference to Miles Davis that had me gasping for air. But again, I return to the heart of the movie: 21 Jump Street hits all the familiar cues, but it does so in a way that displays more respect for its comic characters than most straight-faced buddy cop films. No one is winking in this movie, not even with certain cameos or on-the-nose lines of dialogue. Instead, 21 Jump Street gives these characters an actual reason to exist in something that that everyone, including the filmmakers, thinks shouldn't. When the production company logo for Original Film flashed on the screen at the start, I laughed, but by the end, I felt it was a strangely appropriate introduction for this wonderful surprise.


  1. Good review! I found this to be surprisingly sweet, funny and entertaining. 3.5/5 for me.

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  2. I enjoyed this film but not as much as I thought I would. It kinda dragged a little, but it had me laughing. Good review though. I followed you in Twitter as well.

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