While I was reasonably sure that 21 Jump Street would be reasonably funny, what I didn’t anticipate was how smart it would be. As written by Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill, the film contains the requisite number of laughs, with far more of the gags working than not. But what makes this the comedic movie to beat in 2012 is that all involved are in on the joke – that this is yet another retread of a nearly forgotten television show and there’s absolutely no way they can bring anything fresh to it – and succeed in smartly lampooning themselves and the genre throughout. The result is a crowd-pleasing entertainment that delivers its share of ribald and sardonic jokes but also taps into the fantasy of being able to go back to high school and succeed in ways you never knew possible while you suffered through that four-year rite of passage.
In an effective prologue we meet Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum), two high school students who are as far apart socially as Mercury is to Pluto. While the former is awkward socially but a whiz in the classroom, the latter is a popular jock who’s as dumb as a post. They meet again years later in police academy and by helping each other with the gaps in their education, they become close and are eventually assigned to patrol a local park on bicycles, not exactly the high-action detail they’d hoped for. When their first arrest goes horribly wrong, they’re assigned to a special unit housed in an abandoned Korean church at 21 Jump Street. This division consists of baby-faced cops who are young enough to go undercover at local high schools to ferret out wrongdoing. Deputied by their foul-mouthed superior, Captain Dickson (Ice Cube), to enroll at a school where a deadly homemade drug is making the rounds, a schedule change finds Schmidt rubbing shoulders with the cool kids while Jenko is stuck with the science nerds.
This is only one example of the film playing against our expectations. In the new high school world, students who are eco-friendly are the cool ones, differences are embraced and the bullying tough guys are the ones that are now on the outs. Equally effective is a scene in which Dickson tells his charges to embrace their stereotypes, because trying to break out of the mold you’ve been cast in is an impossibility. Cop movie clichés also come under fire as the usual “superior-chewing-out-the-rookies” scene is played for effective laughs. This movie’s version of being in too deep while undercover is when Jenko finds a college application on Schmidt’s desk.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in the film is how effective Tatum is as a comedic actor. In most of his past work he’s always struck me as being a step behind the proceedings and this plays to his advantage here. Initially cocky and then reduced to associating with the sort of kids he once ridiculed, Tatum not only delivers the funny but he actually elicits our sympathy by conveying his sense of displacement. Hill complements him perfectly, suddenly on top of the world in a social setting that left him battered and bruised, he’s a bit too cocky and destined for a fall to earth, which occurs during a genuinely funny performance of the school play, Peter Pan, that goes horribly wrong.
All of this is done in a breezy, tongue-in-cheek manner, which zips by quickly and effectively. While the film does lag a bit at the one-hour mark, it rights itself for a rousing finale that features a high-profile alum from the original Jump Street in an effective cameo. Smart, pithy, but unafraid to get down in the gutter if need be to get a laugh, 21 Jump Street surprisingly exceeds expectations with its post-modern take on, not only the cop movie, but also the current state of the film industry itself.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at email@example.com.