THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"21 JUMP STREET"
If you thought a movie version of 21 Jump Street was a bad idea, you're not alone. The film itself seems to feel that way, and so it makes the very wise decision to take only the basic premise of the 80s TV show on which it is based, then spin it into something completely different. Freed from the need to be faithful to the show's content and tone, it finds its own rhythm – a comic one, no less - and embraces a go-for-broke ethic.
In a prologue, we meet Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum), two high school students. The former is a geek desperately trying to fit in, the latter a stereotypical dumb jock. Years later, they both end up at the police academy and, after graduation, on the beat together as bicycle cops. Now partners, they are assigned to take part in a special undercover program run by the intimidating Captain Dickson (Ice Cube). Schmidt and Jenko are assigned to pose as high school students to break up a drug ring being operated from within the classrooms. Their job is to infiltrate the dealers and find out the identity of the mastermind behind the operation. In one of the movie's great, clever twists, the boys get their fake identities mixed up, so that Schmidt has to sidle up to the cool kids, while Jenko must hang with the nerds. Eventually, they discover that the key to solving the mystery lies with Eric Molson (Dave Franco), a cocky and mysterious student whose female friend Molly (Brie Larson) attracts the attention of Schmidt.
21 Jump Street has a ton of innovation, starting with the way it approaches the premise. Whereas the original TV show was more of a crime drama, the movie is a flat-out comedy that mocks the conventions of that genre while also exploring the confusion of high school life. The very idea of an adult being forced to relive his/her adolescence is ripe for humor, and boy, does this picture find some. Schmidt and Jenko essentially switch roles, making them unable to perfect upon their original high school experiences because they're stuck in unfamiliar circumstances. The shy, geeky Schmidt has to take theater class, star in the school musical, and run track, while the dopey Jenko hangs with science aficionados and takes AP classes he doesn't understand. Watching the two not only navigate their new social strata but also thrive in them makes for some very big laughs.
Somewhat astoundingly, the screenplay was written by Michael Bacall, who also wrote the execrable Project X, which is one of the worst movies I've ever seen. (In fairness, Bacall also co-wrote the screen adaptation of the most excellent Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.) Working with an ace cast capable of improvisation, Bacall and directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) fashion a comedy that moves at an insane pace. 21 Jump Street is almost Airplane!-like in the speed with which it throws random jokes and sight gags at you. There's always something happening, sometimes in the foreground, sometimes in the background. The film isn't afraid to take some goofy detours, either. One of the comic highlights is an extended bit in which Eric forces the boys to take some drugs to prove they aren't narcs. On-screen titles show us the different stages of the high, which the guys go through one-by-one.
I'm always a sucker for movies that make fun of movies (and, thereby, themselves). Here again, 21 Jump Street shows real originality. A mid-movie car chase isn't just a car chase, but a full-on deconstruction of cinematic car chases and the cliches they're comprised of. The sequence keeps setting up our expectations, only to deny us the payoff we expect – until we no longer expect it, at which point it suddenly arrives. I doubt its a spoiler to say that the film also delivers the obligatory self-referential star cameos, but even those are done in a way you won't anticipate. It's like the movie knows all the things that usually suck in based-on-a-TV-show films and is determined to thumb its nose at them.
Jonah Hill has proven himself funny in many a picture already, and he delivers once more. The surprise, though, is Channing Tatum, who shows an unexpected flair for comedy. He's a riot, and his chemistry with Hill is fantastic. The supporting cast - which includes everyone from Ice Cube, to Chris Parnell, to Nick Offerman – ably backs them up at every turn.
21 Jump Street has humor of all stripes. It is smart, silly, straightforward, conceptual, satiric, raunchy, and character-based, all at once. Amazingly, far more jokes work than not. I laughed often and I laughed hard. Despite being a child of the 80s, I was never particularly a fan of the “21 Jump Street” show. Then again, the show was never as cool as this movie.
( 1/2 out of four)
21 Jump Street is rated R for crude and sexual content, pervasive language, drug material, teen drinking and some violence. The running time is 1 hour and 49 minutes.
Buy a copy of my book, "Straight-Up Blatant: Musings From The Aisle Seat," on sale now at Lulu.com! Paperback and Kindle editions also available at Amazon.com!