21 Jump Street
Columbia, R, 109 minutes
U.S. Release: 16 March 2012
Conventional wisdom holds that Hollywood has run out of all originality and has been reduced to rehashing old ideas, often from the 1980s. 21 Jump Street is a film that, on its surface, appears to confirm this idea. However, the film plays more as a subversion of its source material than a straight adaptation or a rip-off, in part through its cheerful acknowledgment of its own roots as an adaptation of a late-’80s TV show (starring a young Johnny Depp) about cops going undercover as high school students. In the film, when the main characters are informed that the police department is reviving the undercover program, they are told it is because the people in charge are all out of new ideas and have been reduced to recycling old programs.
While poking fun at Hollywood’s all-too-frequent unoriginality is neither edgy nor new, this scene encapsulates several of the elements that elevated 21 Jump Street beyond the constraints of ’80s adaptations. In addition to moving the setting to the present day, the film addresses the earlier story on its own terms, even bringing back Johnny Depp for a cameo as his old character, decades after the events of the TV show. Devoted fans of the original show might not appreciate the story being turned into a comedy, but it’s hard to see the preposterous premise playing any other way, at least not in this decade. By winking at the audience, 21 Jump Street is able to transform a pedigree that would normally count against a film into the basis for some of its funniest moments.
The film makes effective use of its brief prologue, quickly establishing the characters of Schmidt (Jonah Hill) as a nerdy, socially awkward teen and Jenko (Channing Tatum) as a handsome, popular jock who is baffled by schoolwork. The real comedy of the film occurs after a time-skip to the present day, where Schmidt and Jenko have both grown up, but still struggle to escape the bounds of the social roles they inhabited in high school. The two meet for the first time in years when they both enroll in the police academy, and while Schmidt is an academic whiz who struggles with all things physical, Jenko is still the superb athlete who fails at book-learning. Both need help and so they gravitate towards each other in a surprisingly believable manner, not despite, but because they are opposites.
After graduating from the academy, the two botch the arrest of a drug dealer in a public park when they fail to read the dealer his Miranda rights. The two are transferred to 21 Jump Street, the headquarters of the department’s undercover high school program, where they are assigned to investigate a new synthetic drug that is spreading through the local school. Once in school the two struggle to adapt to the changes in high school culture since they graduated, which is made worse when they mix up their false identities and become enrolled in each others’ classes.
The film creates great laughs in nearly every scene, never missing an opportunity to poke fun at the idea of two grown men attempting to pass themselves off as high school students. Despite arousing suspicions, Schmidt and Jenko find themselves immersed in high school culture, only in opposite cliques from their first time in high school. Both embrace their new roles – to the point of losing sight of their overall mission – while drifting apart from each other. The film finds comedy in its premise, setting, and characters, so the jokes feels very natural. Moments of pathos are often forced in comedies such as this, but 21 Jump Street avoids playing things too seriously so that the character moments and the jokes often coexist simultaneously instead of infringing on one another.
Both Hill and Tatum excel in their roles and the the supporting cast is very solid as well, although the focus remains on the two main characters throughout the film. The most important supporting characters are the ones involved in romantic and bromantic relationships with the two leads, and these roles are some of the strongest, particularly Schmidt’s theatre partner and love interest (Brie Larson). The funniest supporting characters, however, are Ice Cube as the self-described “angry black Captain” in charge of the undercover operation and Johnny Depp in a late reveal that is too good to spoil.
21 Jump Street earns its R rating, but none of its language, sexuality, violence, or drug use (being integral to the plot of the film) is overdone. The movie constantly sees opportunities for comedy and avoids being too direct with its more mature elements. The few serious scenes generally reflect a theme of not letting yourself become permanently stuck in your high school years, which is a commendable message, although it never takes center stage. The movie keeps its momentum going throughout its two-hour running time, and while it flirts with drama and action, it remains focused on its comedic goals.
I give 21 Jump Street four-and-a-half stars out of a possible five. The entire audience in my theatre was laughing nearly constantly, and for good reason: this is easily the funniest movie I’ve seen since The Hangover. If you enjoy R-rated comedies, I cannot recommend this movie enough.