Phil Lord’s and Chris Miller’s 21 Jump Street shouldn’t be as brilliant as it is. In fact, on paper, it’s a film that seems ripe for evisceration at the hands of critics and cineastes for whom kvetching about Hollywood’s modern culture of property recycling has become as much a pastime as actually watching movies. Maybe 21 Jump Street is an easy target; its premise is so hopelessly cheesy that it could only be a product of the late 80s, while Jonah Hill’s comedic stock has been wavering since 2010’s Get Him to the Greek. Tack Channing Tatum on and you have a project that reads like a fake film-within-a-film from Entourage. Who gave a movie so obviously doomed the green-light?
I ask because that person deserves some serious applause for their decision to put some faith into Lord, Miller, and their cast. I’m in awe of the fact that I’m saying this, but 21 Jump Street delivers, big-time; it’s hilarious, well-made, and full of the bawdy humor and genuine sweetness that made so many of us fall in love with Superbad half a decade ago when it was okay to like Hill without having to apologize for it. Maybe none of this should surprise me; Lord and Miller spun an enjoyable narrative with 2009’s Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, so it stands to reason that spinning quality out of adaptation pieces seems to be in their wheelhouse. If anyone could take the basic conceit of Jump Street and run with it, it’s them.
For those unfamiliar with the TV show that helped light the fuse of Johnny Depp’s career, 21 Jump Street details a squad of young-looking undercover police offers who infiltrate high schools and other bastions of youth to bust drug rings and gangs and so on. In 2012, the idea remains the same; Morton Schmidt (Hill) and Greg Jenko (Tatum) go from being a pair of high school dopes to a pair of screw-up cops who fail so spectacularly in an opening arrest that their superior officer assigns them to Jump Street detail as punishment. From there, their new chief (Ice Cube) has them go back to high school to catch the persons involved with the proliferation of a new, powerful, potentially fatal drug that’s gaining fast popularity among the teenage set, and the stage is set for shenanigans, antics, and copious volumes of profanity.
How does a film like this end up succeeding so marvelously? Lord and Miller, courtesy of Michael Bacall’s screenplay, dodge a massive bullet right off the bat through a keen sense of self-awareness and meta humor that’s designed to endlessly mock 21 Jump Street‘s central idea. There’s little hesitation here, either; the film jumps right into making fun of itself, with an essential scene in which Nick Offerman describes the Jump Street unit as a bad idea from the 80s which lazy, uncreative types of today have seen fit to cannibalize. 21 Jump Street‘s intentions are made clear from the outset. It’s not interested in taking a hammy concept from decades past and painting it with a broad, serious brush– it knows its hook is ridiculous, and makes a point of relishing its inherent silliness throughout the entirety of the plot.
It also revels in the relationship between Schmidt and Jenko, and by extension the chemistry between Hill and Tatum. That’s another layer to the film; in high school, the characters exist so firmly on opposite ends of the spectrum that the idea of them ending up as partners on the force, and two halves of a major bromance, seems a lot like wishing. So too are the actors portraying them so vastly different from each other that it’s a surprise to see them click as well as they do. Maybe, as in a number of films Hill has starred in, their on-screen camaraderie is influenced by an off-screen friendship and bond; that’s certainly the case for the aforementioned Superbad.
Whatever their secret to success, Hill and Tatum make for a devastatingly funny duo. The bigger surprise is how brightly Tatum shines next to Hill. Hill’s brought his A-game here– he’s the geeky, gun shy Felix to Tatum’s brash, meatheaded Oscar, stumbling through situations and crises with a dearth of grace and an over-abundance of inexperienced panic. Yet Tatum, for all of his own unfamiliarity in realms comedic, is just as comfortable with the setting and the delivery of punchlines as his co-star. How can I put this simply? Tatum, without mincing words, nails every single line and every single moment he’s given with all the ease and timing of a more veteran comic. If you’re not immediately convinced of his prowess in eliciting laughter, wait until he goes on a drug-fueled bender where he fills a whiteboard with enough scientific mumbo jumbo to kick-start a sequel to A Beautiful Mind.
Beyond the Odd Couple riffs and the identity swapping riffs, there are the Bad Boys riffs (notably an absolutely amazing highway car chase which details the set-up and payoff of a good explosion) and the role reversal riffs (in which Jenko learns quickly that the social pecking order he remembers from high school has been upended). That’s another one of Jump Street‘s strengths; it refuses to play in one mode. That’s not to say it’s all over the place– it stays within the boundaries it sets up for itself, but its lampooning grounds are well-diversified. It’s a buddy cop movie, it’s a high school teen drama movie, and it’s a movie about two seemingly mismatched friends.
That third element might be the most important. Like the Apatow-backed comedies of the past ten years, everything comes back to the characters. If 21 Jump Street just went out of its way to put its stars in ridiculous situations to record their reactions, it would still be a great achievement in splitting sides, but Bacall, Lord, and Miller clearly give more than a damn about Schmidt and Jenko. They want us to, as well, and in between scenes of the two bumbling boys in blue trying to help each other throw up, and of Tatum molesting Hill with a stuffed giraffe, and applause-worthy celebrity cameos, there’s sincerity in the character work which ultimately serves the film’s raunchier proclivities. Between the man-crush Hill and Tatum so carefully brew and the unapologetic, sophomoric vulgarities shot at us in rapid-fire succession, 21 Jump Street is the best kind of film– the kind that categorically blindsides you with unexpected excellence in the face of the assumption of failure.