One of the oddest and most welcome surprises to come out of Hollywood in who knows how long, 21 Jump Street can quite comfortably call itself the funniest mainstream comedy in…well, who knows how long.
It’s an absurd idea. It’s also true.
The movie is based on the 1980s Johnny Depp starring television series of the same name. In it, a handful of cops, particularly of the young variety, are enrolled into local high schools as losers and burnouts in order to unravel crimes amongst various youths. Directing duo Phil Lord and Chris Miller of “Clone High” and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs fame and screenwriters Jonah Hill and Michael Bacall (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) take that concept and mine it for laughs, but in a far more clever way than you might think. 21 Jump Street isn’t the “gee, that show was silly” nonsense of Starsky &Hutch), nor is it the pure meta-commentary of The Brady Bunch Movie, falling comfortably in the middle with a tone that resembles Wayne’s World.
In this version of the story, Hill portrays the nerdy, insecure Schmidt and Channing Tatum plays the masculine, rather dim Jenko. Both young men are the kinds of individuals who haven’t yet shaken of the spell of high school. Though they despised each other when passing in the hallways, Schmidt and Jenko find a common bond in police academy, both needing that special skill the other has and yearning to redefine themselves as bad-ass cops.
They end up chasing down drug-dealers on bicycles in a park instead.
After a failing to read the perps their Miranda rights, the duo are demoted to the Jump Street program with one last chance to prove themselves. Schmidt is terrified, having to move back in with his parents to boot, while Jenko is ecstatic that there’s a second chance to relive his glory days. Things go wonderfully wrong immediately when Jenko’s tips on how to fit in with the cool kids (backpack over one shoulder, fighting, not caring about anything) quickly backfire and, to top things off, the pair’s school identities get mixed up. Jenko is now stuck in AP classes and Schmidt’s in drama.
None of this remotely hints out how absolutely uproarious and outrageous 21 Jump Street turns out to be. The movie clicks at a breakneck speed, though not at the expense of character. Hill and Bacall do an impressive job of giving their leads motivations, nuances and just enough depth to make them more than one-liners spouting machines or stereotypes. At the same time, the directing by Lord and Miller present it all in a reality that is one notch away from our own. Nobody seems capable to hide any of their feelings. There is Jenko’s growing jealousy of Schmidt’s increasing popularity, Ellie Kemper’s barely restrained lust for her new pupil and Dave Franco’s vocal suspicions over the guys’ obviously older stature.
The movie is also littered with clever visual touches. Schmidt and Jenko’s watch one student’s recent overdose, which of course was posted on the internet. The little sparkling animation, fireworks and insane music that coincides with it will be welcome to anyone who called themselves fans of Lord and Miller’s cult hit “Clone High.” 21 Jump Street even manages to pull-off the rarest of things, a funny car chase sequence, complete with exploding chickens. Todd Phillips and countless others have been trying to make people yelling in an automobile speeding down the road amusing for years, but always end up making a bunch of clanging noise instead. Lord and Miller succeed by keeping the motivations relevant, the action clear and the laughs coming from a place more than, “Whoa!! We’re going fast!!”
Hill and Tatum are perfect here, the latter showing shockingly solid comedic abilities. Hill’s goes down roads we’ve seen him do here before, appropriately so. However, Tatum gives a performance of such acute dunder-headness, it’s as if he’s ready to scratch his head in confusion caveman style at all turns. Yet, he also displays an overwhelming and infectious joy when he begins showing signs of intelligence and appears on the verge of getting new friends. These two play off each other with razor-sharp precision, even giving the movie a (yet again) surprising emotion buoyancy when they begin to fight.
For the love of Korean Jesus, make a pilgrimage to 21 Jump Street.
21 Jump Street opens wide all across Seattle today.