IMDB Summary: A pair of underachieving cops are sent back to a local high school to blend in and bring down a synthetic drug ring.
“21 Jump Street” is a gaping hole in my pop-culture knowledge. I knew of its existence and that it had something to do with cops. I knew it launched Johnny Depp’s career and that it featured Richard Grieco who remained a stagnant fixture in the 80’s. But that is it. I have never seen an episode and was unfamiliar of even its basic concept. When the news of its reboot came about, my reaction was likely that of many: yet another shrug-and-eyeroll combo with a reiteration of the oh-so-original thought that Hollywood has run out of ideas. From my limited understanding, not even the basic genre, tone or characters are kept here. It is a reboot mostly in name only.
Yet, lo and behold; 21 Jump Street is a mostly fantastic film. Save for a third act that comparatively falls apart at the seams, this is an engagingly uproarious and surprisingly sincere comedy that is taken to the next level by the pairing of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum.
The first half is almost shockingly good. The pacing is razor-sharp and it clicks along with an at-times remarkable speed. Take the first five minutes which manage to accomplish what some films fail to do in their entire runtime. It establishes Jenko (Tatum) and Schmidt (Hill) in their respective high-school personas. Schmidt was a 2005 unpopular Eminem wannabe whereas Jenko was your typical douchebag jock. This sets up a really refreshing role-reversal that will take place later on when they return to high school as undercover cops. Years later, they encounter each other when they train at the academy. Jenko is dim and needs help with the exams while Schmidt cannot power through the physical training. They begin to help each other out; through montage we see the roots of a clearly meaningful friendship which has a genuine immediacy that carries throughout. All of this resonates within the first five minutes, making everything that comes after all the more absorbing.
21 Jump Street contains a manic energy akin to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (screenwriter Michael Bacall had a hand in both screenplays) without the kinetic comic-book visuals. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller of the perplexingly well-received Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, quickly establish a gleeful fluid mania that permeates through everything. Early on they show how they will use the camera and music to present something in a more subjective fashion, only to pull back and show the amusing reality. It works every time.
Two sequences that do this perfectly are arguably the films two funniest sequences. The first is the pair’s first attempted arrest. The second is the pair’s drug-addled excursion during school hours. The latter switches back and forth from a first-person perspective, showing how they experience the various effects of the drug (whose supplier they have been assigned to track down), to a third-person perspective which displays just how ridiculous they really look. I can honestly say I do not know the last time I laughed this hard as this played out.
There is something about the experience of high school that is captured here, inducting it into the pantheon of memorable high school films. It helps that Jenko and Schmidt graduated high school in 2005, the same year as me, giving it an added dose of personal resonance. It presents high school as a toxic environment where peer approval not only reigns above all, but legitimately defines you as a person. Going back to high school terrifies Schmidt whereas Jenko is thrilled with the assignment. But the tables have turned. The high school experience has changed enough in seven years allowing Jenko to be unpopular and allowing Schmidt a place in the school’s top clique.
High school is its own universe and 21 Jump Street gets this. It capitalizes on the idea that going back after a number of years would be somewhat surreal. It is surprising just how much we feel when Schmidt, in his newly acquired popularity, distances himself from Jenko, who is looked down on by the popular crowd for his low intelligence level. This role-reversal allows for both the story and performances to go in some nicely unexpected directions.
As far as the two lead performances go, the brilliance of the Jonah Hill/Channing Tatum, pairing cannot be overstated. In the end, they make this film the success it is. They raise the bar for onscreen comedic pairings in our modern times. These are no exaggerations. Together that not only possess perfect comedic timing, but their ‘bromance’ (hate the term, but if it applies anywhere, it applies here) feels completely authentic and is respectfully played straight. When Tatum says he would take a bullet for Hill, it isn’t played for laughs.
To think of Hill in Moneyball and then in 21 Jump Street is a bit jarring. It is evident at this point that he can filter himself into a variety of different characters. Here, his character is equal parts insecure and misguided; but he’s also very intelligent. He isn’t really playing a ‘type’ here; Schmidt is a well-rounded character navigating through the confusing times of high school for the second time. It is very easy to overlook Hill’s considerable talents, but we shouldn’t. And here is hoping we do not start taking him for granted any time soon.
As far as Channing Tatum goes, his work here has single-handedly made me a fan. Saying he is revelatory may be an overstatement, and yet to simply say he shines would be an understatement. There is no straight man between the Hill/Tatum pairing. Not only does Tatum go for broke with the comedy, but the majority of the humanistic elements fall on him. The vulnerability on display is flat-out moving and he sells the hell out of all the facets of his character. This role represents a turning point in his career.
The last third of the film does not destroy everything that came before, but it certainly threatens to. There are still laughs and earnest storytelling to be had, but an unskillfully apparent chaos comes into play. The controlled tightness unravels and an unappealing messiness takes over.
The action scenes are somewhat incoherent. In concept there is a lot of potential, but the execution fails to translate what could have been exciting and vibrant set pieces. It does not help that distractingly subpar post-production work both in effects and sound somewhat take away from the experience. And while the crisp editing works in non-action scenes, it weakens the majority of the chase and fight scenes. This is a great comedy that also happens to be a weak action film.
21 Jump Street remains self-aware throughout, acknowledging its own lack of originality. But it never allows that one-joke gimmick to define the film; far from it. This is a mostly great comedy (and how few comedies can even be defined as ‘mostly great’ these days?) that thrives on being hilarious and sincere in equal measure. The rocky road the central friendship takes is clearly just as important to the filmmakers and actors as the laughs. Only time will tell, but I predict that Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum will go down as one of the best onscreen pairings of our time. Yep. I said it.