“We’re reviving a cancelled undercover police program from the ’80s and revamping it for modern times. You see the guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas, so all they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us all not to notice.”
21 Jump Street (2012)
The whole concept of 21 Jump Street is unappealing. A slick big-budgeted comedy based on a vaguely well remembered ’80s TV series is just one of those ideas that makes you want to grab a sleazy greenlighting exec and shake them by their cocaine-dusted lapels. However, it’s so much better than it has any right to be and, at least in my opinion, is one of the funniest all-out comedies in recent years.
“You are here because you some Justin ‘Beaver’, Miley Cyrus lookin’ motherfuckers.”
After a botched arrest attempt, rookie cops Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are put onto a recently revived police program that takes young-looking officers and plants them in undercover roles in high schools. Jenko and Schmidt are tasked with finding and stopping the people responsible for flooding a local school with a dangerous, potentially lethal synthetic drug called Holy Fucking Shit (HFS). The script is smart. Much like many others aspects of the film, it takes something eye-rolling and generic and makes something great out of it. It takes the meta approach, nudging and winking along with the audience and it works. It knows how unappealing the premise of an ’80s reboot is and focuses on making the best of it. If more films did this, I’d find very little to complain about. It’s partly a parody of action film conventions, but doesn’t get hung up on references and tells its own story. It’s pretty much the American Hot Fuzz. Jonah Hill is on form, but it’s Channing Tatum who turns out to be the surprise MVP. The guy has on point comedic timing and can deadpan with the best of them. This film, coupled with Magic Mike, is the reason why I began to like Channing Tatum and refer to him as “Chan the Man”. Ice Cube is also surprisingly funny as the standard “angry black captain”, Captain Dickson. Brie Larson and Dave Franco are also welcome faces and both do well with what could have been limited supporting roles.
On the surface, 21 Jump Street looks like any number of other modern comedies. It’s got base, vulgar gags, it’s edited in a frenetic, stylish way etc, but it just proves that a good script can overcome most obstacles. I think the thing that sets it apart for me is the attention to character. A lot of comedies nowadays revolve around a prick being a prick to other pricks. Much like horror, comedy works better when you have an emotional reaction to the characters. Funnily enough, screenwriter Michael Bacall also wrote the abhorrent Project X, a theoretical “comedy” that encapsulates everything wrong with films of its ilk. I hated every single character in that film, which yes, is an emotional response, but there’s no payoff to it. There’s no knife-wielding maniac picking them off or anything. Even by the film’s own narrative, they have no comeuppance. We’re meant to like them and that very fact alone was enough to make me hate it. 21 Jump Street, on the other hand, knows that character is important in driving story. Let’s not get carried away here though, it’s not groundbreaking stuff, but it’s enough to draw you in that little bit closer.
It’s got the same crude humour as other contemporary films, but I found myself more willing to laugh at the knob gags because it had more to offer than simply that. It’s got some neat observations of how high school has changed since Jenko and Schmidt attended. There’s some clever role reversal as the nerdy Schmidt finds a niche with the new breed of popular kids and the former popular Jenko finds himself lumped in with the dweebs. Schmidt soon starts buying into his cover and starts treating the whole thing as a second shot for a less lonely and dismal experience. It’s smart stuff. It doesn’t feel like just a bunch of things happening for the sake of being funny. The duo of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum is also a big part of why the film succeeds. It’s an oddball pairing but they play off each other well.
You know a film is doing something right when you genuinely laugh at the apparently obligatory “drug trip” sequence. This is just it- the entire film takes shit that is so played out and somehow makes it funny again. Phil Lord and Chris Miller are the absolute kings of this, as proved by the brilliant Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and the awesome Lego Movie. It’s quite comforting to know that I’m capable of laughing at crude humour and that it was the modern bollocks featuring it that was at fault, not the other way around. I probably sound like a right snooty twat with that statement, but it can’t be just me sitting stony-faced through most contemporary comedies. I’m a pretty lowbrow guy, but something like A Million Ways to Die in the West makes me feel like I’m above coarse innuendo and the like. Not all the gags are winners. Don’t get me wrong, the joke hit rate is damn high, but Rob Riggle’s sports coach didn’t get many laughs from me. His humour is a little “standard” for my liking and found it strangely ill fitting. Still, the film wisely focuses on Hill and Tatum, so a mere minor niggle with Riggle.
“Chemistry’s the one with the shapes and shit, right?”
You’ll have noticed that I’ve spent quite a bit of this review talking about other films and not focusing on this one. Y’know- the hallmark of a terrible reviewer. The reason for this is that I can’t say much more about the film without just repeating jokes and funny scenes. I’ve watched 21 Jump Street a bunch of times now and it doesn’t lose its charm. It’s become a real favourite for just slapping on and enjoying whenever I feel cat-kickingly grumpy.