21 Jump Street
A blatantly belated coming-of-age story, liberally blended with fish-out-of-water laughs, 21 Jump Street has an anarchic streak running through it a mile wide, and if the sweetly sincere smut delivered by Jonah Hill – back in Superbad form – doesn’t get you giggling, the impeccable comic timing of Channing Tatum (seriously!) certainly will. Retooling the TV show’s format, this is the tale of two high schoolers – handsome jock douchbag, Jenko (Tatum) and geeky wannabe Schmidt (Hill) – who become unlikely BFF’s at the police academy before being sent undercover back to their old high school to bust a ring of dealers doling out a new synthesized wonderdrug called HFS (Holy F*cking Sh!t).
These days, the sight of actors who are pushing thirty sporting skinny jeans and vintage tees to play teenagers on television is so commonplace that barely anyone notices. But back in the late ‘80s, when 21 Jump Street put forth the premise of youthful-looking officers being dispatched to “get down” with the kids in drug-plagued, inner-city high schools, it was something of a cultural curiosity. Despite being instrumental in launching the careers of Johnny Depp and… well, that’s it, 21 Jump Street the TV show requires the rosiest of rose-tinted ironic spectacles to be taken seriously now.
Operating under a strict moral code when it came to subjects such as recreational drug use and gang affiliation – episodes often being followed up by a brief PSA on the subject delivered by one of the cast – NYPD Blue it wasn’t. In fact, it was primed for parody, and in the collective hands of Hill, Tatum, and Scott Pilgrim scribe Michael Bacall, it has been transformed into a raucous, R-rated, buddy-action comedy that’s certainly strange and riotously funny.
From the word go the script smartly undermines expectations of simple role-reversal that sees Schmidt getting “in” with the cool kids and Jenko discovering his sensitive side. Witness the pair of them equally baffled by what to make of hipsters, the uncomfortable revelation that caring is the new cool, that their catchphrase (“Chaka Khan”) doesn’t actually mean anything, and the excruciating squirming of Jenko’s realization that punching a gay, black kid in the face is a bit of a dick move, which Tatum sells to perfection.
Unsurprisingly, given Bacall’s involvement, there are gags way out of left field, and several moments that are patently surreal, such as the garish, CGI inserts signifying the various stages of HFS’s effect. And yet, while it does have a tendency to veer wildly in many different improv’d-to-within-an-inch-of-their-life directions, the movie never gets high on its own cleverness.
Nakedly self-aware, and unashamedly self-referential, 21 Jump Street provides gags-to-giggles ratio that is suitably successful, despite a few duds here and there. Ice Cube nails it as the self-consciously abusive police captain, railing about how — due to a chronic lack of originality — the powers that be simply revive old crap from the ‘80s and hope no one notices. Elsewhere in the supporting stakes there is Rob Riggle in a decent turn as a sardonic gym teacher, and Dave Franco (now stepping entirely outside brother James’ shadow) as the school’s shifty, resident dealer.
Johnny Depp fans also get plenty of love with Hill offering up a sidesplitting parody of Donnie Brasco's infamous airport scuffle, and yes, the inevitable cameo is beautifully worked in. Skewering cop movie conventions (there is a running gag about why nothing ever explodes) and teen movie staples (awkward romance, the house party getting out of control) with equal aplomb, simultaneously lacing the lewd antics with genuine affection, much of which is clearly made up on the fly, the movie is nothing if not tonally schizophrenic. A few of the scenes are so out-there that you’ll instinctively laugh along without the faintest idea why, but by that point the movie has generated more than enough goodwill that you simply won’t care.
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