Friday, March 16, 2012

Review: "21 Jump Street" is a remarkably fun and creative spin on a bad eighties TV premise

Film Rating: B+

Early in “21 Jump Street,” Nick Offerman’s police chief character remarks on how utterly unimaginative the department is in resurrecting an old, silly undercover unit from the eighties where youthful-looking officers fight crime at local High Schools by pretending to be students.  It’s a wonderful little meta gag reflecting how baffling it is that studios keep cranking out remakes and reimaginings of useless, outdated films and TV shows, which is exactly what “21 Jump Street” is on the surface.  The eighties TV series had a spectacularly silly premise, never attracted the sort of rabid cult following that would usually inspire a studio cash-in, and is only notable for launching the career of Johnny Depp.  Yet, as Offerman puts it in his wonderful, deadpan way, here we are, re-launching a concept as insanely stupid as “21 Jump Street.” 

But here’s the thing: if every other remake out there displayed half the creativity, passion, and pitch-perfect tonal clarity as the “21 Jump Street” movie, Offerman wouldn’t need to make that joke.  Writer Michael Bacall and Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller are fully aware of what a terrible premise they’ve been given, so they decide to simply have fun with it, using all their wits and imagination to turn dramatic lead into solid comedy gold.  “21 Jump Street” is riotously funny, sharply observed, occasionally thrilling, and even a little sweet.  It’s also the best comedy of 2012 thus far, setting a high bar for the next nine months.  Continue reading after the jump…

Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as best friends Schmidt and Jenko; they never talked in High School, since Schmidt was a nerd and Jenko a jock, but after joining the Police Academy, they realized their opposing skill sets could be mutually beneficial, and grew close while helping each other graduate.  This is the first great decision the film makes; by centering the story around a down-to-earth, heartfelt friendship, one that’s easy to take seriously, the film has license to go as off-the-wall silly and ridiculous as possible.  There’s still a palpable human connection at the heart of the movie, grounding the story whenever it threatens to go too far.

And it goes amusingly far very fast, as the film’s second brilliant decision is to make Schmidt and Jenko the worst cops in the world.  They mean well, but are so stunningly incompetent that a simple drug bust early on goes horribly awry.  This is when they are sent to 21 Jump Street, a special undercover division where, because of their youthful appearances, officers are sent into High Schools posing as teenagers.  It’s a comedic match made in heaven: two terrible police officers carrying out the worst idea in the history of law enforcement, and the filmmakers mine the scenario for every possible laugh.  Schmidt and Jenko aren’t savvy enough to navigate a new generation of teenage culture, aren’t clever enough to make much headway on their exceedingly simple assignment – find a local drug supplier – and aren’t emotionally stable enough to survive the rigors of High School a second time.  It’s an absolute train-wreck, but a wildly hilarious one; as the film starts playing with these dynamics, gradually turning Schmidt into the popular kid and Jenko into a geek, it just gets funnier and funnier with each passing moment, building to a third act that earns every bit of its rampant insanity. 

Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller have only one other film on their resume – the kid’s movie “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” – but they demonstrate a remarkable command of live-action comedy, mixing many kinds of humor into one beautifully frenetic package.  I haven’t seen physical comedy done this well in years – the contrast between Hill’s clumsy attempts at heroics and Tatum’s athletic precision alone is worth the price of admission – but it’s the timing in the dialogue and well-observed flourishes that make “21 Jump Street” a truly great comedy.  The film displays an impressive level of insight about modern teenage culture that, as someone less than a year out of high school, makes the humor resonate all the stronger.  Then there’s the glorious, reckless abandon of the action sequences, where Lord and Miller combine superb comic timing with truly impressive action-movie aesthetics; the go-for-broke second-act car chase may go down in history as one of the all-time best humorous set pieces. 

But the real secret weapons here are Hill and Tatum, a duo who provide laughs and heart in equal measure.  Hill’s talent has never been in doubt – though I greatly appreciate the calmer, down-to-earth persona he’s been perfecting since “Get Him to the Greek” – so it’s Tatum who surprises as a comedic force to be reckoned with.  He’s legitimately hilarious from start to finish, with flawless timing and amazingly funny physicality.  I suspect he’s been completely wasted throughout his career in dramas and romances: humor seems to be his true calling, and I hope to see him do much more of it in the future.  Crucially, Hill and Tatum are even better together than they are apart, with a warm, honest chemistry that makes their interactions hilarious and heartwarming, often at the same time.  We like these guys, and as fun as it is to watch them fail (over and over again), we really want them to succeed; though “21 Jump Street” isn’t particularly deep or complex, that we can take it all even a little bit seriously gives the film a certain weight necessary of all great comedies. 

The supporting cast is fantastic – particularly Ice Cube in a surprisingly funny turn as Schmidt and Jenko’s boss – the movie looks great, and the music is perfectly in tune with the film’s cheeky tone.  There are a few moments where I felt Lord and Miller could have gone a wee bit further, and one gag near the end that goes a tad too far, but it’s such a deliriously fun film overall that I can’t wait to revisit it in the future.  If it makes a decent amount of money, I’d absolutely love to see a sequel; “21 Jump Street” works wonderfully a stand-alone entity, but with much of the groundwork in place, I can only imagine the crazy comedic heights this creative team might reach in the future.   

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