21 Jump Street (2012)
Television adaptations rarely impress on the big screen. More often than not, they’re unoriginal cash-grabs made because the people in charge lack ideas and hope the audience doesn’t notice. Surprisingly, this is the exact sentiment shared in 2012’s 21 Jump Street.
For those too young to recall, 21 Jump Street the TV series debuted in 1987 and was at one point the highest-rated show on the brand new Fox network, and it quickly made a star out of Johnny Depp (who gets a brief cameo in the movie, along with original cast members Peter DeLuise and Holly Robinson Peete). It involved a group of youthful-looking cops who went undercover in high schools to deal with a variety of cases (but mostly they just busted drug trafficking rings).
The film adaptation keeps the same general concept, and of course features our main characters taking down a high school-based designer drug ring, but whereas the original TV show was a collection of earnest and melodramatic Very Special Episodes, the film instead goes for all-out farce.
Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the team behind Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and The LEGO Movie, 21 Jump Street is a meta-film that laughs at its very existence. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star, and both have enough comedic chops to handle the film’s multifaceted sense of humor. Ice Cube, Rob Riggle, Nick Offerman, Dave Franco, and Brie Larson also co-star. While the film’s meta-humor seems subtle compared to its busier sequel 22 Jump Street, it’s still one of the funniest comedies in recent memory despite some long stretches of dullness.
The film begins in 2005, with Morton Schmidt (Hill) and Greg Jenko (Tatum) in their senior year of high school. Schmidt is an Eminem-wannabe nerd who gets laughed at by the jocks, and Jenko happens to be the jock who laughs the loudest. While Schmidt’s school-smarts make him unpopular compared to Jenko’s athleticism, these traits complement each other perfectly when they both find themselves training together at the police academy seven years later.
The two help each other out in passing their exams, and after graduation, they become partners. But they’re extremely disappointed when their first assignment is as bicycle cops at a local park. They finally get a chance to make their first arrest when they catch a motorcycle gang using drugs, but because Jenko fails to coherently read the criminals their Miranda rights, the gang goes free.
Their captain (Offerman) reprimands them, and as punishment, they get reassigned to 21 Jump Street, an undercover program that infiltrates high schools. They meet their new captain (Cube) who has them disguise themselves as teenagers (even though Tatum is in his thirties, which the movie gets plenty of mileage out of) and find the supplier of a new designer drug called “HFS”, which is revealed in a YouTube video to be an acronym for “Holy Fucking Shit”. The video shows the drug’s high has four stages, ultimately ending in death.
Schmidt and Jenko head to their assigned school, but on their first day, we learn that the two of them never bothered to figure out their undercover names ahead of time, so they end up accidentally exchanging identities. And now Jenko has to attend an AP chemistry class while Schmidt is assigned to drama class, where he discovers that popular senior Eric (Franco) is a low-level dealer of HFS.
Before buying the drug from Eric, Jenko and Schmidt are forced to take HFS to gain his trust. Eric finds their drug-induced antics hilarious, and offers Schmidt a job working for him. However, he doesn’t trust Jenko and excludes him from the group. The two undercover cops see their partnership strained as they both become more intimately involved in their separate groups. In particular, Schmidt, a hopeless nerd in high school, suddenly finds himself becoming popular, even getting romantic with Eric’s sort-of girlfriend Molly (Larson), while Jenko, formerly a popular jock, begins to bond with the school nerds.
Eventually, they trail Eric to a drug deal, where he turns out to be selling the drugs (smuggled inside a piñata for some reason) to the same motorcycle gang they tried to arrest in the park. Schmidt and Jenko commandeer a driver’s ed car to spy on the deal, but are soon spotted by the gang. After a huge highway chase, the two cops get away, but now Schmidt is late for the school play (he’s playing the lead in their production of Peter Pan, of course). He rushes back to the school, where he and Jenko get into a fight on stage.
Both get expelled from the school, and also fired from the police force. But then Schmidt learns that a major HFS deal will go down at the senior prom, so he and Jenko team back up to find the supplier, who turns out to be the school’s gym teacher (Riggle). When the deal goes down, they discover two members of the gang are undercover DEA agents, and actually former 21 Jump Street-ers Tom Hansen (Johnny Depp, who rips off a wig, beard, and prosthetic nose to reveal his true identity) and Doug Penhall (Peter DeLuise, who, um, takes off his sunglasses).
The two are immediately killed off, another big chase ensues (this time in limos), the gym teacher is apprehended, and our leads learn their next assignment is to go undercover at a college.
21 Jump Street is unexpectedly self-aware and hilarious. Many TV adaptations have come out over the years, and most are either cynical cash-ins or tepid buddy comedies like remakes of I Spy or Starsky and Hutch. 21 Jump Street cleverly avoids this by directly commenting on itself, such as when Offerman’s character calls 21 Jump Street “a canceled undercover police program from the ‘80s” that they’re “revamping” for modern times, adding, “You see, the guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas, so all they do now is recycle from the past and expect us all not to notice.” It’s self-aware lines like these that make the film smarter than it could have been.
But aside from the meta-humor, the film utilizes multiple styles of comedy that make it mostly funny throughout. There’s visual comedy, dialogue-heavy comedy, and also playing with film as a medium, such as the big highway chase scene that plays with audience expectations through editing. When compared to the usual talky, one-note comedies from Apatow and crew, 21 Jump Street is surprisingly fresh. It’s a welcome addition to recent visual comedies, such as those from Edgar Wright, which are still rare in a dialogue-oriented genre.
And the chemistry between Hill and Tatum is unexpectedly hilarious. Before this film, Tatum was only popular with women who dreamed of his abs and moves from Step Up. With this film, he establishes himself as a strong comedic presence with great timing. He’s since been hired by Bennett Miller, Quentin Tarantino, and the Coen brothers to star in more dramatic roles. He and Hill play perfectly off of each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and together they’re one of the more entertaining duos in recent memory.
Overall, the film is a success. However, there are stretches of dullness that do weigh down the film. It takes a while for the story get funny or amusing at all. Less enthusiastic viewers may turn it off before it gets good, due to the misses of the intro and the first scene of them as cops in the park. The big laughs don’t start until the first day of school, where Jenko punches a kid in the parking lot, and from then on the film mostly plows ahead full steam. Unfortunately, it takes about twenty minutes to reach that point.
Another problem comes from the current trend of comedies where non-sequiturs are supposed to be funny. The best example comes from a teacher (Ellie Kemper) who’s hot for Jenko. These scenes feel like outtakes that somehow got left in the film. Luckily, scenes like these are rare, but the occasional moment of improv falls flat and brings things to a halt. Too many recent comedies seem content to let the actors run loose and then edit it into a choppy mess later. It’s distracting when such tightly wound comedic scenes are spoiled by rambling nonsense.
That being said, 21 Jump Street succeeds by providing big laughs at a fairly steady pace. It avoids the tragic pitfall of becoming serious in the third act, and some of the payoffs are worth the price of admission alone. While it’s far from perfect, 21 Jump Street is one of the best comedies of recent years, and its shortcomings aren’t bad enough to spoil the film. And as I’m sure you’re aware, the film was successful enough to warrant a sequel, so look for my review of 22 Jump Street, coming very soon.