21 Jump Street
Directed By: Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Written By: Michael Bacall, working from a story by Bacall and Jonah Hill
Starring: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube, Dave Franco, Brie Larson, Rob Riggle, Chris Parnell, Ellie Kemper, and Nick Offerman.
Director of Photography: Barry Peterson, Editor: Joel Negron, Production Designer: Peter Wenham, Original Music: Mark Mothersbaugh
Why exactly is Channing Tatum so great in the new comedy 21 Jump Street? The young star has been criticized by many for simply being a piece of man candy, whether in actions roles like G.I. Joe or romances like The Vow (those who know him from smaller works like A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints are aware of his supreme talent). Tatum’s best ability as an actor is that he can play dead serious, which might suggest he has little range, but works perfectly in a comedy like this where he must deliver absurd lines without a hint of irony. Tatum’s hot bod and true conviction, despite the absurdity of the situations the film places him in, help make 21 Jump Street a hell of a fun time.
The film is of course a retooling of the little known television series from the 1980s with Johnny Depp, about an undercover cop who infiltrates a high school. Most of the film’s audience, including myself, have never seen the series (a fact one of the characters acknowledges in one of the film’s most humorous jokes). Thus, screenwriter Michael Bacall, who co-wrote the story with star Jonah Hill, retooled it as a buddy comedy and action parody, a genre that may have lots its edge, but works perfectly here. And while 21 Jump Street could hardly say to break ground at all, it certainly is a fun ride while it lasts.
Part of this fun comes from directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, another case of animators (their last was A Cloudy Chance of Meatballs) moving to live action. You can see the influence here, with the film’s more wild and outrageous stunts coming from that children’s flick. 21 Jump Street, however, is far from a film for all ages—it’s a hard R comedy with abrasive language, heavy violence, and at least one mutilated male member. The film wastes no time with exposition as it introduces us to nerdy Schmidt (Hill) and cool but assholish Jenko (Tatum) as high schoolers on opposite side of the spectrum. When it comes to police academy, the two decide to become best friends to essentially use each other (Jenko’s atheliticism; Schmidt’s intelligence). Soon enough, under the guise of a hard-ass captain (Ice Cube in one of his better roles in some time), the duo is sent back to high school to find the dealer and supplier of a new synthetic drug.
Part of the reason 21 Jump Street ends up working so well is that most of its comedy comes out of the characters. Once back in school, Jenko ends up an outcast, as what has become popular is now defined by intelligence, environmental friendliness, and tolerance. Thus former outcast Schmidt finds himself in with the popular kids (who of course are linked to the drugs) while Jenko finds his only in with the nerds. The film isn’t particularly plot driven—there’s plenty of time for drug-related insanity, teenage romance, and a lot of sex related jokes (as well a plenty of humorous cameos from your favorite comedy stars).
By the end of it, 21 Jump Street has lessons in whatnot about learning to stick by your friends and doing the right thing, etc., but I laughed through most of it, though the action set pieces aren’t particularly memorable. Both Hill and especially Tatum make the best of the solid material, playing up the humor while staying true to their characters. And if it is a reboot? So what. A good entertaining film is a good entertaining film.