Directed By: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller
Written By: Michael Bacall
Starring: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube, Dave Franco, Nick Offerman
Though it can be hard to admit, sometimes we can be wrong. I fully own up to the fact that my initial impressions of 21 Jump Street were simply incorrect. When I heard they were making a film based upon the classic 80’s TV drama I thought it was a mistake waiting to happen. It came off as more evidence that Hollywood has simply run out of ideas. When I saw the first trailer I thought there was some potential but still was apprehensive. I wondered why a TV show that’s fandom has come and gone was going to be revitalized in such a random manner. So I walked in with limited expectations. When it was finally over I legitimately felt it was the funniest movie I watched since Bridesmaids. It was proof that a great movie can be made out of just about anything.
Where 21 Jump Street succeeded and other TV to film adaptations failed was it found that balance between being respectful to the source material and being beholden to it. Any changes it made were justified and contributed to making a better movie. The end product came out as something that was tonally different than the original TV show, and that felt like it was the right choice to make. I don’t see this film working nearly as well if it went for the straightforward approach. Of course this is not the first film to go this route. For example 2004’s Starsky & Hutch tried a similar style of making a comedy out of a once serious television show, but that attempt wasn’t nearly as good as this one. This didn’t just go for the obvious humor as it attempted to be clever and unique. When you look at the plot of the film a lot of the jokes seem to write themselves. What made it go further was the screen writers’ ability to go beyond the obvious. Michael Bacall who wrote the screen play along with Jonah Hill ‘embraced the stereotypes’ the film processed but also engaged with the genre in a lot of clever and unique ways. Writing scenarios that played with common tropes found in action films, remakes, and cop dramas was an ongoing theme. Playing with concepts all started with the film’s plot. The story centers around Schmidt and Jenko two underwhelming cops put into a repurposed undercover operation from the 1980’s. Jonah Hill plays Schmidt the once high school spaz trying to prove his worth. Jenko the former high school jock is not surprisingly played by Channing Tatum. The former high school classmates now partners in law are placed into this undercover operation at a local High School in hopes of bringing down a synthetic drug ring.
The premise is simple and straightforward and an easy setup for some effortless jokes. A lot of those effortless jokes were made, but they were actually funny. The script made use of the situation it was given and the film overall was willing to make fun of itself. There was this subdued self awareness that was actually rather unique. Jokes were made at the movie’s expense, but the characters in the film weren’t in on the joke. It’s the difference between Leslie Nielsen in “Airplane!” compared to Leslie Nielsen in”Wrongfully Accused”. More proof that playing it straight actually makes for better humor. It never came off as over the top or hacky in any way. Perhaps the best jokes were when it examined the evolution of our culture. Contrasting what was consider cool 10-15 years ago in high school compared to what is considered cool now provided some great laughs. It looked at how the environment, internet culture, and comic books have now incorporated themselves into the popular crowd. Sure that idea isn’t revolutionary, but they did some interesting things with it. Dealing with the “now” was really where Channing Tatum shined. Tatum’s character went from being the popular kid to outcast in this modern high school environment. Again forcing a jock into the geek world isn’t exploring new territory. What this was continuously able to do is find fresh ideas in rehashed situations. 21 Jump Street showed that Channing Tatum actually has some comedy and acting chops. He played the dumb jock role well, which isn’t a huge surprise. The surprise was the character actually had some appreciated depth to it. I’m not a huge fan of Tatum but I was in this. This could easily become a break out role for him. While he has had hits in the past he has never been well respected. Having both a hit and a solid performance puts him in a new level. Plus his chemistry with Jonah Hill was fantastic. Hill gave a great comedic performance as well and even those who are dealing from Jonah Hill fatigue could get something out of it.
The genre of action comedy has been nearly extinct. While it was huge in the 80’s we haven’t heard much of it sense. This attempts to be an action comedy at times, but overall it never really committed to the idea. I think that was the right choice because it allowed us to spend more time with the characters and less time with action sequences that are thrown in there just because. There are a few action moments which are fine, but they won’t be what you remember from the story. Besides the action there were a few plot points that didn’t really go anywhere. Jonah Hill’s character for example has a semi relationship that fizzles out near the end. That in itself felt strange. Giving an undercover cop a high school love interest is just asking for trouble. In general the issues with the plot and some of the characters are too small and insignificant to cause any real troubles. A lacking plot point is easy to ignore if you are laughing through it. With any comedy you’ll have some of the best moments in the trailer, and this isn’t an exception. Most of the larger jokes can be found at least partially in the trailer. Luckily they only offer a small glimpse into some of the best scenes. Also this isn’t a comedy that relies solely on shock humor. This is one that will for sure get better on rewatch as it is loaded with actual jokes. I am certain there are jokes or moments I may have missed as things came at you rather quickly, which also adds to the rewatch value. The jokes didn’t stop to laugh at themselves which kept the pace going. The material had respect for itself as well as the audience. Never was it self indulgence nor was it ever too ridiculous. That caused what could have been a horrid mess to become what is easily one of the most pleasant surprises in recent memory.