Review: 21 Jump Street
Trust The Clone High Creators To Create a Great High School Comedy
By Tom Houseman
March 20, 2012
Early in 21 Jump Street, our protagonists sit in front of the Deputy Chief of Police, who tells them that he is placing them in a program they are resurrecting that was shut down in the '80s. He explains that since the police cannot come up with any original ideas they are merely rehashing the same old ideas that have been done over and over again. This combination of self-awareness and self-mockery is a perfect introduction to the film, which is adapted from the '80s TV show that made Johnny Depp a star. 21 Jump Street brilliantly skewers itself, mixing mockery with action to create the funniest Hollywood comedy in a long time.
Both Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton made the jump from directing animation to live action in the last year, and now duo Phil Lord and Chris Miller have joined them. Lord and Miller directed the surprisingly entertaining Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and the criminally underrated Clone High, both of which do a superb job of playing with audience expectations, turning cliches on their head, and exploding common tropes with absurd and hilarious results. For their live-action directorial debut, the two teamed up with writer Michael Bacall, who wrote Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, which also toyed with the tropes of the genre in which it was working. This is a match made in heaven, and the result is wildly entertaining.
And really, everything that happens in 21 Jump Street is fairly obvious. It is about a nerd (Jonah Hill) and a jock (Channing Tatum) who become friends when they join the police force. They are then assigned to infiltrate a high school, which we assume will drive a wedge between them as they are forced back into the roles they have shed since graduation. We make the rounds with all of the set pieces that we would expect from a cop-centric action movie. There is the angry boss and the chase scene and the shootout. Our heroes grow and learn and save the day and emerge from their story better people. In those broad terms there is nothing out of the ordinary about 21 Jump Street.
But it is the execution that makes this film so successful. The Other Guys, another cop action comedy, was content to run its paces exactly as expected, and just tried to make everything silly, with the result banal and forgettable. Jump Street, though, walks us into scenes where we know what to expect and then completely subverts our expectations. What we see of the jock and the nerd is not what we assumed we would see. The direction of the chase scene zigs and zags so quickly that we are left not just laughing, but surprised and excited to see where it can go next. Instead of action with jokes we get action that makes us laugh, which is why 21 Jump Street is almost always hilarious and occasionally brilliant.
And of course it is the commitment of the actors that is necessary to sell the comedy within the absurdity. Jonah Hill, of course, has proven his comedic chops long ago, and is at his best here, as good as anything he did in Superbad or Accepted. But it is Channing Tatum who really shines, mostly because we expect him to be the straight man to Hill's wacky character. Again defying our expectations, Tatum is put in just as many situations to look stupid as Hill is, and he takes advantage of them, simultaneously taking every scene seriously while maintaining a hint of self-awareness that he is playing against the Channing Tatum tough, stoic, heartthrob that we expect.
A slew of supporting characters each get their moment to shine. Ice Cube has never been funnier, bringing a surprising amount of depth to what could have been a one-note angry captain. I have always thought of Dave Franco as James Franco's really annoying younger brother, but he is able to reign in how annoying he is here and actually manages to be both fun and sympathetic. And of course Rob Riggle, Nick Offerman, Chris Parnell and Ellie Kemper makes the most of their brief cameos, each bringing their one-dimensional characters to life and making them so much fun to watch.
The first half of 21 Jump Street moves at a kinetic, breakneck pace, throwing jokes at us as fast as we can catch them and combining farce and slapstick seamlessly. The second half of the film slows things down, as is expected, but doesn't drag, managing to keep the energy up even as it transitions from focusing on the comedy to developing the plot. Yes, throughout the film there are a few obvious sexual innuendos played for easy laughs, but for the most part 21 Jump Street is able to walk the line that few R-rated comedies are able to: it uses its freedom to push boundaries without ever resorting to gratuitous grossness or shock value. Unlike its protagonists, the film is refined, finessed, and perfectly adept at hitting every shot it takes. Lord, Miller, and Bacall have done what some thought was impossible and reworked an old TV show to create a memorable film and a great comedy.