Mark Reviews Movies

21 Jump Street


3 Stars (out of 4)

Directors: Phil Lord and Chris Miller

Cast: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Brie Larson, Dave Franco, Rob Riggle, Ice Cube, DeRay Davis, Dax Flame, Chris Parnell, Ellie Kemper, Jake M. Johnson, Nick Offerman

MPAA Rating: R (for crude and sexual content, pervasive language, drug material, teen drinking and some violence)

Running Time: 1:49

Release Date: 3/16/12

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 16, 2012

Here's a film that's far cleverer than it needs to be, and for that reason alone, we should be grateful. 21 Jump Street features a character stating the film's premise in more ways than one. He tells the heroes that they will be involved in an undercover operation to infiltrate local high schools and stop any outbreaks of criminal activity that may arise. Then he goes on to point out that it was originally an old, cancelled program from the 1980s that is now being revamped for modern sensibilities because the people upstairs are out of ideas and think everyone is too stupid to notice that they're just recycling old things in fresher packages.

A film admitting its inherent lack of originality is one thing; it's noteworthy when finding ways to counteract that laziness becomes a badge of honor. That joke, by every rationale, goes on for too long; we've gotten the point after the first laugh line. Comedy, though, is all about the irrational; hence, it goes on too long by every rule except the most important one: It's funny because it goes on too long. The moment, in a film that makes an effort build up or imply a sense of dignity within its character only to tear down even the modicum of it they might have left, is to wipe clear any possible inkling we might have that the film has any self-respect. This is to its credit.

Having never seen an episode of the television series upon which 21 Jump Street is based, I can only assume the film is its exact opposite. By all accounts, the series took its premise as a way to address social issues relevant to teenagers of the time (Apparently pertinent PSAs aired at the end of certain episodes). The film throws that conceit out the window and questions its very logic by placing two incompetent cops into the mix. They would break every rule in the book if only they could comprehend what the rules were in the first place, and they are far more concerned with their popularity at school than with trying to break the case.

Seven years before the story proper begins, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum, quite funny) were in high school themselves, living out the roles allotted to them by the mandates of secondary school. Schmidt was unpopular because he was smart, had braces, and participated in the juggling squad. When he asked a girl he had known since childhood to prom, she tried to let him down easily, though the expression of complete dismay sort of undermines her attempt. Jenko stood in the corner with his friends laughing at Schmidt's rejection, only to feel something similar when the principal informed him he wouldn't be allowed to attend prom because of his poor grades.

In the present day, the two have joined the police academy and wind up becoming the best of friends when they realize one's brain and the other's brawn are a fine complement to each other. The assignment to go undercover arrives after a failed attempt to arrest some drug dealers in the park in which they patrol (Both assume there'd be more explosions and car chases and less dealing with petty concerns like a kid feeding ducks when a sign tells him not to do so).

Jenko never learned the Miranda rights, he says, because they always cut away from the cops as they're reading them on TV. The pair seems to have learned a lot of television and the movies, especially when and why things are supposed to blow up during various vehicle crashes. When a canister of flammable gas breaks open, it's a bit disappointing for them when there isn't a resulting boom; the consternation increases exponentially when a truck filled with "oil and gasoline" fails to ignite.

We're getting ahead of ourselves here, though. While the climax meddles with clichés (not limited to the physics of explosions, the payoff to a character being unable to shoot his gun until the stakes are highest (and where said shot lands), or the idea that cameo appearances from the stars of the original material should be treated respectfully), the lead-up plays with the characters' expectations of social norms.

Jenko anticipates high school is exactly the same as when he was there but finds that trying to succeed, environmental awareness, and tolerance are popular now (The students are aghast when he punches a kid and calls him "gay," only to discover he actually is). Schmidt becomes popular, even catching the attention of Molly (Brie Larson), and Jenko, jealous of his friend and brushing off accusations that he looks too old to be in high school, starts hanging out with the science nerds he would have mocked less than a decade ago.

The plot, as related by the operation's captain (Ice Cube, whose character encourages his officers to embrace their stereotypes—the movie follows suit), is to take down a synthetic drug ring whose product has led to the death of one student. There's a mandatory sequence in which the two try the product after the head dealer (Dave Franco) gives them an ultimatum, and like so many of the gags, it finds itself on the right side of the fine line between pushing the joke too much and hitting the sweet spot.

Fans of the original show might decry the shift in tone (As a newcomer to the concept, it doesn't phase me), but no one can accuse 21 Jump Street of falsely representing itself. It's a silly diversion and, yes, a funny at that.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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