Originally Reviewed – 4/3/2012
Growing up, I never had much of a connection to the TV series 21 Jump Street. While I knew of it’s existance, I had never seen a single episode of the popular series. Alf, Star Trek: Next Generation and Perfect Strangers were more my speed. Little did I know, I was missing out on a cultural hit. Spanning five seasons and over one hundred episodes, the original Jump Street became a hit among young TV fans. A serious yet fun police procedural about undercover cops investigating crimes among high schoolers, the series quickly became a cult classic. Now, over twenty years later, a film has been made, rebooting the popular franchise. The result is a foul mouthed yet clever comedy piece that modernizes the now stale formula while staying true to the roots of the original series.
In this Jump Street, our investigative twosome is Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum). Growing up, Schmidt was a geek and Jenko was a jock but due to a bonding experience while attending police academy, the two become dear friends. After a bust gone bad, the two friends are reassigned to 21 Jump Street, an undercover division of the local police force. Their task is to pass as high schoolers, infiltrate the school’s various social strata and find the source of a new drug that’s sweeping the campus. This very simple setup lays a good if unbelievable baseline for the resulting gags and jokes, most of which work quite well in the context of the film. Much of the success of the movie is in the self referential way it treats this story. Many times characters mention how “writers have no new ideas” and how they “recycle old crap”, a willing wink to the audience. This removes all expectations of realism and allows the viewer to relax and get swept up in the silliness. The film also takes the time to provide links to the original show through cameos and inside jokes, all of which never hinder the story. Suffice to say, you don’t need to have seen the original series in order to get a laugh or two out of the movie, but if you have, these subtle winks are a scream.
And there is plenty of screams to be had. From ill fitting Peter Pan costumes to ridiculous chase sequences, 21 Jump Street doesn’t lack in the “things to see” department. While the middle section gets a touch bloated, the film rebounds nicely with a satisfying final twenty minutes. By that time, some of the gags have worn a little thin, but there’s more than enough laughs to keep audiences interested. Much of this is due to some fine chemistry between Hill and Tatum. Although neither actor really excels, you can tell they are having a genuine good time, and in a farce like this, it’s more than enough. The film also features a very strong script, penned in part by Mr. Hill. One of the more interesting plot points is a modern day role reversal with Tatum and Hill. In the seven years since the two were in high school, sensitive kids are now sitting at the cool table. Watching Tatum struggle with now being a dork and Hill soaking up being popular is strong storytelling and gives the characters some unexpected weight. This drama creates a natural tension that develops between the two friends and gives the characters a much needed shot of believability. The other standout performance is that of Ice Cube as Capt. Dickson. Labeled as the standard “angry black boss”, Cube’s straight forward and cutting delivery steals many of the scenes he’s in.
The film isn’t all perfect, however. Many of the jokes miss the mark and the film feels a little overlong, especially around the 80 minute mark. There’s also one very uncomfortable scene where a neighbor threatens to blow Hill’s cover, prompting him to push her into a pile of shoeboxes. Played simply for the physical comedy of seeing an old woman eat it, the scene slows the action to a crawl, ruining the movie’s momentum. There’s also an awkward romance between Hill and a student named Molly (Brie Larson). Despite the film reminding us numerous times that she’s supposed to be 18 in the movie, she doesn’t look it and seeing Hill fawn over someone who doesn’t look legal is a little creepy. While the script doesn’t go beyond the attraction, the romance could have been nixed entirely as it does little for the main plot.
When all is said and done, this is the only way you could have done a modern 21 Jump Street movie. Back in 1987, procedural police dramas weren’t on every channel and the serious tone was welcomed by fans and critics. Now, the method is ripe for parody and directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller know it’s all supposed to be one big joke. If you’re looking for a serious reboot of the series, you’d be better served dusting off those old VHS tapes of the original show. However, if you’re in the mood for a clever, raunchy and mostly funny film that knows exactly what it is, 21 Jump Street is right up your alley. Just don’t be too offended when the leads get high, party with the kids and stare up at Korean Jesus. Just sit back, relax and be happy that it’s supposed to be stupid. Anything else would have been unbearable.
Score – 70%