Monday, March 19, 2012

21 Jump Street

21 JUMP STREET: Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill (105 min.)

Maybe the most impressive thing about 21 Jump Street is the fact that the movie stays out of its own way.  Here is a film that could have been a complete disaster.  For anyone doubting that this most recent television-series-turned-comedy film could have wound up a terrible film, consider the long list of failures like The Dukes of Hazzard, Land of the Lost, Get Smart, The A-Team, and Bewitched just to name a few.  But I am getting off point, which is that 21 Jump Street is none of these adaptations.  It has to be the best TV-to-film adaptation up to this point, but not just by default.  21 Jump Street is smart about itself, so it goes dumb and funny; the film realizes what it is, and it embraces it with a screenplay that is self aware, performances that know their place, and plenty of laugh out loud moments.

The original 80s TV series starred Johnny Depp and Richard Greico as young cops assigned to do undercover work in high school.  The premise in this new film is the same, but I cannot imagine much else is similar.  This time around, the two young cops assigned to high school are Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill.  Tatum is Jenko, Hill is Schmidt, and the two attended high school together seven years before our story.  In high school, Schmidt was smart but nerdy in dyed blond hair and braces while Jenko was the popular dumb jock.  Now the pair meet up in police academy, where Schmidt aces the written exams but struggles with the physical side and Jenko, of course, does the opposite.  They find friendship in their differences and work together to become misfit cops assigned to bike patrol in a local park.

After a series of missteps and a botched arrest, the duo is reassigned to Jump Street.  As their captain tells them "it's some dumb program from the 80s" and "these programs just get recycled because nobody is original anymore," clear winks and nods to the film you're watching.  Their boss at the Jump Street program is a stereotypical angry black cop named Dickson (Ice Cube), who devours the screen when he's on it.  Sure, it's a cliche, but that's the point, see.  Dickson even points it out for us.  That's the whole running gag about the film, that it knows it's ridiculous and has no problem telling the audience the truth.  And these guys are clearly too old for high school, which is another running gag exposed in some clever writing.  Truth goes a long way.

The plot, about a new synthetic drug ring in the local high school, takes a back seat until it's time to fall into conventional buddy cop action tropes that are mildly disappointing.  Before the climactic scenes, however, 21 Jump Street takes a pretty interesting look at high school and the way it's changed.  Jenko thinks he knows how to be cool, but it turns out Schmidt is the popular kid this time around.  "These kids are weird," Jenko says.  "The cool kids are all granola earth lovers."  It's funny how things can change in the high school social structure in seven years.  Thanks to a funny schedule mix up when the pair can't get their undercover names straight, their courses are mixed up and Jenko winds up making friends with the nerds in AP Chemistry.  The high school environment is a minefield of comedy for the film, especially when Jenko and Schmidt sample the new drug and have to carry out the rest of their day. 

There is nothing the slightest bit realistic about 21 Jump Street, but when the picture realizes it beforehand, the end result can be very funny.  But it isn't all just knowing nods; the class structure and the reversals of fortune for Jenko and Schmidt add a layer.  We all know Jonah Hill can be funny, fat or thin, and he is on his best comedic behavior as Schmidt.  And then, here is Channing Tatum, who I am convinced has been miscast in weepy melodramas for five years now.  Tatum is dry, dense, and uses his expressionless face to draw out the funniest moments in his character.  I could absolutely see him as the villain in one of these screwball comedies somewhere along the way.

Maybe there are one or ten too many dick jokes in 21 Jump Street, and like I said the action ending is a little drab.  But still, even in the car chases screenwriter Michael Bacall and directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller try their best to pep it up with new ideas, like explosions that might or might not work, and constant traffic jams.  There is real inventiveness here, something I never expected from the early previews that made the film look ordinary.  But despite it's very ordinary 80s TV series roots, this new version of 21 Jump Street is smart in playing things stupid.  It succeeds when it tells the truth.