21 Jump Street is a film that was a large passion project for Jonah Hill. The actor originally pitched the story and played a major role in continuing the 80s television series in comedic form on the big screen. With Channing Tatum trying out his comedic chops as his partner on-screen, the film certainly has a lot of buzz. But, does the crime drama series from the small screen, which only ran for four years, work great as an action-comedy?
When cops Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) join the secret Jump Street unit, they use their youthful appearances to go under cover as high-school students. They trade in their guns and badges for backpacks, and set out to shut down a dangerous drug ring. But, as time goes on, Schmidt and Jenko discover that high school is nothing like it was just a few years earlier — and, what’s more, they must again confront the teenage terror and anxiety they thought they had left behind.
21 Jump Street is a lot of things. It’s one of the best revivals of old entertainment since the movement in Hollywood began. It’s one of the funniest films in years. And last but not least, it’s the best film of 2012 so far (which is not that hard of a task). The film doesn’t have just a steady amount of laughs, but also a great amount of emotion, character development, smart writing, and depth to spare.
Am I overselling it much?
Maybe it’s because 2012 has been full of some really bad films as of late. Films like Safe House, Contraband, and other action thrillers have easily polluted the box office, making up for a modest art of getting by. Even Michael Bacall’s comedy that released a few weeks ago Project X was a delightful disappointment. However, it seems Bacall was saving all his creative finesse for 21 Jump Street. The writer of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World definitely starts this action comedy the same way: fast, getting core relationships down, and leaving the rest to catch up as the movie truly begins to roll. That’s one of the beautiful things about 21 Jump Street, as it’s unique way of cementing the core relationship between Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) is done so fast, you do question if the emotional depth is there. But, as the movie truly starts to come out of its shell, the heart surprising packs a punch.
If you saw the television show, of which this film is a very odd continuation, you know the story: babyfaced cops are put in a mission on 21 Jump Street to go undercover and bust major cases involving teenagers that the elder cops simply can’t solve. While the looks are what sent the original Jump Street gang to the project, it’s Schmidt and Jenko’s looks and juvenile attitude that place them here. This room for growth is definitely experienced throughout the movie, both intellectually, socially, and emotionally, and it all leads to this crowning moment at the end when both eventually get the perp. It makes the triumph all the more satisfying, lovable, and smile-inducing.
What really makes the entire script work are the actors who are at the helm. While I’ll say that both Tatum and Hill easily carry the film, and the two are one of the best comedy duos I’ve seen on screen together, it’s Tatum that somehow ends up stealing the spotlight. Sure, Hill’s time is well spent, adding plenty of laughs, a relatable nerd, and being the more levelheaded of the two. However, Tatum has never truly been in a comedic role like this before. So, it really could have gone either way with the character of Jenko. Thankfully, he pulls out a decent number of laughs, while also being the emotional anchor for a good portion of the film. What happens between the brotherly relationship of our two cops mostly rests solely on his shoulders, and maybe it’s the romantic drama that have made him so good at delivering it. But, Tatum thankfully adds enough heart and sadness in the pitfalls of the two’s friendship as it develops and goes through the motions that really make the core of the film truly about these two. Adding to that relationship, the two work well together in terms of chemistry. They’re bouncing jokes off each other consistently, and what could be a very serious moment is easily turned into a hilarious one thanks to the other (ex: Korean Jesus).
On paper, the “twist” of the movie seems a bit idiotic: Jenko screws up their aliases so Tatum winds up with the nerd classes while Hill winds up with the more athletic and easy going schedule. Sure, it sounds dumb, but that’s most of the fun of the film. It sounds like some kind of wacky cliche, but it ends up being a vast improvement that adds to the character development as these two end up having reverse social roles than their own high school years, essentially finding a new found respect not just for each other, and seeing these characters really get to play on the other side of the field for a change.
Furthermore, with this identity switch, it’s the first film to really explore the “nerd is cool” concept that even I didn’t get to experience in my own high school years. There’s a rare, if any, appearance by jocks at all, and the popular kids all consist of eco-loving, comic book reading geeks that have seen an uprising in recent years. It was very fun to explore that concept, turning what would be a typical story stereotype and flipping it on his head. It was this uncharted territory that definitely gave the film an edge to it, and makes it stand out from the crowd.
Consisting of these popular kids are really two major standouts. Dave Franco, younger brother of one James Franco, holds things together excellently as Eric. He definitely has an antagonistic feel to him, but yet you can sort of feel for his friendship with Schmidt as we see it develop throughout the film. Brie Larson is also a decent female lead. She’s not exactly my favorite, but she has the whole “normal, intelligent, and at times sarcastic” girl role down. It’s not exactly the best thing in the world, and I didn’t quite feel too much of a spark between Molly and Schmidt, and honestly didn’t find it too heartbreaking when he seemingly lets her go. Maybe it’s something to explore in a sequel, and maybe from there we can explore Schmidt simply being himself around her, but it seems highly unlikely.
There are really two instances I highly praise the writing most of all. Usually, if a film packs one stretch of the movie with lots of comedy, and then tones it down afterwards to only bring back the laughs later on, it’s somewhat noticeable, and can feel very cheap. This may be why I didn’t like Bridesmaids, as they did that in quite a few instances. If anything, 21 Jump Street is the male-version of Bridesmaids’ writing structure, but when the comedy tones down, it truly adds the depth to the characters that can’t really be explored while guns are going off or during the action of the movie. It opens up this large breathing room for you to actually take the film seriously, and in the meantime delivers a very worthwhile and valiant story.
The other instance I praise are the tongue-in-cheek references and the cameos. There are two large instances where the film makes a reference to the film as a type of media, one going as far as to grill recycling old media and putting it up for people to see again. It’s these intelligent moments that truly stand out and are great to watch. Also, there are little jokes or devices that could be used as one-off gags or plot elements that do eventually find their way to return later on in the film, such as Schmidt’s insecurities, or Jenko’s science problem. They all eventually play seemingly vital parts near the end of the film, and that’s another very intelligent property of the script I loved. Furthermore, there are some spectacular cameos that I simply don’t want to give away, and it seemingly stands as a way of passing the torch on to this new version of 21 Jump Street. It was great fun, with two of the cameos more prominent than the other, but it’s definitely a throwback to fans who loved the old series.
While 21 Jump Street is full of raunchy comedy, along with spectacular achievements, the beginning can be a little rocky. The forming and eventual mission are signed, sealed, and delivered so fast that your head may be spinning. This certainly leaves for all of the necessary elements to be filled in, and they eventually do. But, it’s just part of that first act that certainly feels wobbly, amidst the noticeable adjustment from laughs to story throughout various parts of the film.
Overall, 21 Jump Street is one of the most enjoyable films I’ve experienced in a theater in months. It’s a movie that literally has everything; romance, comedy, emotion, action, great performances, great writing, the whole damn package. It’s rare when an R-rated comedy comes together like this and hits incredible high notes, but this movie does it. It’s not just a film I would recommend to someone, it’s a film that I would recommend and then go see with someone. It’s not a perfect film, The third act successfully shows why the film can be considered a great comedy, as it brings together all the elements its conveyed, and leaves you with an incredibly satisfying finale. The ending certainly leaves room for a sequel (which the script has already been greenlit for), and if that sequel does eventually become a reality, consider me front row for opening night.