Adaptation is a tricky thing, especially when creating a reboot/remake. How do you make something seem fresh while still retaining the qualities that attracted people to it in the first place? This is the crux of the challenge facing screenwriter Michael Bacall, especially because I am not sure what originally attracted people to the 21 Jump Street TV show in the first place. Sure, those of the MTV generation remember it fondly enough, aided by the current superstar status of Johnny Depp, but the show was essentially made as a “cool” long-form PSA against drug use, teen sex, alcohol, and other such teen drama.
If there is a moral lesson at the end of this Jump Street incarnation, it is buried deep in the subtext of this film (although good luck making the argument that this film does, in fact, have a subtext). Instead, Jonah Hill and company have taken the “Just Say No” premise firmly into Michael Bay-meets-Todd Philips territory, with surprisingly effective results. For a movie that could basically be described as “Superbad with guns,” 21 Jump Street delivers audiences the non-stop comedic beats they crave with a “bromantically” gooey center.
The protagonists are Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum), both representing a different flavor of high school loser. Schmidt’s brain ceases to function around girls, and Jenko’s never seems to work at all. They are natural childhood enemies until they are reunited at the police academy, where a greater “maturity” drives them to form an interdependent friendship. However, due to a mishap on the job, they are assigned to Jump Street, a program that places young looking officers as undercover high school students. Jump Street is led by the no-nonsense Captain Dickson (played by the hilarious Ice Cube), who knows he’s a stereotype, which helps set the tone for the rest of the film. Rounding out the cast are Ms. Briggs, a repressed chemistry teacher (Ellie Kemper), rebellious track coach Mr. Walters (Ron Riggle), and hipster drug-peddling student, Eric (Dave Franco).
The chemistry between the two leads is what makes this outlandish story so enjoyable. Hill and Tatum make a great, albeit unlikely, duo and for any of you doubting Tatum’s skills infront of a camera, look no further. Their relationship has an ease I was not expecting that makes their characters relatable and their friendship believeable in such crazy circumstances. The Office’s Ellie Kemper continues to show her comedic chops lusting after Jenko during class. Dave Franco is also well cast as the criminally suave Eric, although his acting style is perfectly evocative of his older brother.
Great performances aside, this is a comedy, and the combination of observational, slapstick, gross out, and pop culture humor is the real winner here. The jokes are rapid fire, and the scenes built with the expert craftsmanship of filmmakers who know their audience all too well. However, the film is at its best when making observations about how teen culture (and really, pop culture in general) has changed in the past 20 years. This is reflected in the characters reactions to the ‘new’ high school ecosystem, as well as the film’s flippant attitude toward drugs and sex.
Directing partners Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs) successfully make the transition from animation to live action, though it helps that 21 Jump Street allows their ‘cartoon’ sensibility to be on full display. This is a movie that specializes in the ridiculous (to liberally borrow a phrase from Joe Carnahan’s A-Team) and the idea that there are certain kinds of humor that will never tire. The screenplay does a good job of not only keeping the relationship between the two leads as grounded as possible, but also allowing the audience to laugh at jokes they should be ashamed of.
I can’t believe I’m saying it, but 21 Jump Street is one of the funniest movies I have seen in a good while. In a culture driven to madness by pro-abstinence and D.A.R.E. campaigns, it’s no wonder I laughed my ass off.
21 Jump Street opens today in Philly-area theaters.