Yes, I realize that I’m a little behind schedule with this one. But it’s been a crazy weekend and I’m still away from my usual cineplexes, so sue me.
To be entirely honest, I was not expecting to see this movie. Not only did the trailers look awful, but it seemed like an entirely pointless remake. Not that I’m loyal to the original or anything (I barely know the first thing about that TV show), but it seemed so lazy to come up with a concept for a film, populate the movie with characters and actors who obviously weren’t around in the ’80s, then make the movie share a title with an established property that just happened to have a similar concept.
Speaking of the cast, this movie features Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum not only as stars, but as producers. I’ll grant that Jonah Hill was wonderful in Moneyball, and I wouldn’t take that Oscar nod away from him, but the thought of him going back to comedy so soon after that just left me cold. As for Channing Tatum, gag me. The guy can’t act and he’s totally boring. If Gina Carano won’t be around to kick his ass, then what’s the point?
The only thing about this movie that had me remotely interested was the presence of one Michael Bacall. He was on hand to script this movie, very shortly after writing one of my all-time favorite films, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Then again, I’m not sure how much credit I should give him for that wonderful piece of underappreciated cinema, considering how much creative control went to Bryan Lee O’Malley and Edgar Wright.
Anyway, after reading so many positive reviews, I finally decided to give 21 Jump Street (2012) a go. To my surprise, I didn’t regret the decision.
To start with, though we do see our protagonists in their high school days, it’s only for a very brief sequence that lasts maybe two minutes. It’s just long enough to establish Schmidt (Hill) as a put-upon nerd and Jenko (Tatum) as a brainless jock with no work ethic. And roughly five minutes after that, our protagonists are new friends and out of police academy. This movie didn’t waste time cutting to the chase, which is something I appreciated. But then, roughly ten minutes in, the deputy chief sends Jenko and Schmidt to the revitalized Jump Street unit. That much was shown in the trailer. What the trailer didn’t show you is what the chief said immediately after. I won’t spoil it, so I’ll just tell you what went through my head at the time:
“Okay, movie. Slate cleaned. Just for that brilliantly unexpected and hilarious line delivered totally straight, I will throw away all my preconceptions about this film.”
Anyway, Jump Street is tasked with finding the supplier of a new recreational drug called “HFS.” To take care of the problem, Jenko and Schmidt are sent undercover to a high school. Their cover identities are Doug and Brad McQuaid (of course they’re brothers), and their class schedules were carefully built according to their old high school transcripts. So naturally, they screw up and switch identities.
What follows is a movie that’s half high school comedy and half buddy-cop actioner. Both of these genres are extremely worn out, and the film hits more or less every cliched plot point you’d come to expect from both. Still, the film is actually smart enough to be a parody of both genres in some ways.
For example, during that high school prologue I mentioned earlier, Jenko is called in to the principal’s office and gets chewed out due to his bad grades. When’s the last time you saw a popular jock get called out for his grades in a high school comedy film? Still, that’s just the prologue.
Through most of the running time, a huge crux of the movie is how the high school stereotypes of old don’t really apply anymore. Some cliques have disappeared, some new ones have formed, and the geeks aren’t necessarily at the bottom of the pecking order. More than that, teens are far more technologically savvy, and a lot of them actually think that activism in some form or another is cool. All of this stands entirely counter to the high school years of Schmidt and Jenko, which means that Schmidt actually rises up the social ladder faster than Jenko.
But here’s the problem: We’re told point-blank that Jenko and Schmidt graduated from high school in 2005. At that time, the stereotypical high school hierarchy was already pretty well on its way out. Geeks were walking the hallways with impunity, and everyone had an obsession with their cell phones (though the obsession wasn’t quite as ridiculous as it got to be after the iPhone). I know this because I graduated high school in 2005 as well. As such, I find it just short of impossible to believe that the high school our protagonists went to in 2005 is that radically different from the high school they went to in 2012.
And while I’m on the subject, here’s another nitpick: Schmidt was introduced as “not-so-Slim Shady” during this prologue, looking like a fat teenaged Eminem impersonator while “The Real Slim Shady” is played on the score. Given that 2005 was around the time when Eminem started sucking and that “The Real Slim Shady” was on the radio five years before that (which is something like a decade in Hollywood years), the reference doesn’t quite seem to fit.
Nitpicks aside, the fact remains that this movie doesn’t necessarily play by the standard “high school movie” playbook when it comes to cliques. The popular kids are the antagonists, yes, but they got to be popular entirely by being rich, pretty, and smart. There’s a group of geeks, but they aren’t any more put upon than anyone else, and their technological skills turn out to be extremely important. Plus, they can party just as hard as any of their peers.
Yes, of course there’s a party scene. This is just one of those high school movie cliches we just had to hit. The twist here is that the party is being put on by a couple of totally irresponsible and stupid adults, who not only have access to alcohol but an entire evidence locker full of illegal drugs. Suffice to say that the party scene turns out to be one of the funniest, raunchiest, craziest, and most action-packed scenes in the movie. Incidentally, did I mention that Michael Bacall also wrote Project X?
Let’s move on to the “buddy cop actioner” half of the film. The only thing you really need to know about this part is that our two leads are stupid. More than that, they are hopelessly incompetent. These guys would need to go through police academy about five more times before they could graduate to merely being “awful.” Schmidt can’t fire a gun, Jenko has a negative IQ, and there’s a running gag about how neither of them have the Miranda rights memorized. These guys may be well-meaning (and thus sympathetic), but they begin the movie as total dolts and they more or less end the movie as total dolts.
The point being that this movie knows exactly how stupid our leads are. The filmmakers know it, we know it, the other characters know it, and even Jenko and Schmidt themselves know it. As such, we’re allowed to laugh when our two leads do something grossly idiotic. It also helps that the other characters call our heroes out on their shit at every possible opportunity, which can lead to some fun shouting matches.
That said, there are a few times when the characters get away with crap. Take the aforementioned party, for example. It’s heavily established that Jenko and Schmidt will get into a world of trouble if they give any drugs or alcohol to minors, yet they never get into any trouble for the party. Hell, there’s never any mention of discipline for leaving evidence lockup with a full pound of confiscated marijuana. It’s not like the police wouldn’t have noticed that. In fact, there’s a line at the very end suggesting that the cops knew full well about the party. So where’s the disciplinary action for that? Hell, why aren’t Jenko and Schmidt charged for the multiple felonies they committed during a freeway chase shortly before?
In spite of those nitpicks, the “actioner” side of the movie does have quite a few moments of parody. There are several moments (particularly early in the film) when the characters think that they’re being all badass, only for the camera to get some distance and show how pathetic our “heroes” really are. The contrast is hilarious. Later in the film, there’s a running gag involving those two action movie staples, the car chase and the rampant explosions (“Why didn’t that blow up? I really thought that would’ve blown up.”).
Next, I suppose I should talk about the “teen drug use” aspect of the film. First, this movie had to establish HFS as a legitimately dangerous substance or there wouldn’t be any stakes to the movie at all. Second, HFS couldn’t be too dangerous because hey, this is a light comedy. Third, the issue is a very serious one in real life that has to have some modicum of respect for all the lives that were ended too early as a result of it. Depicting HFS in a way that adequately satisfies all three of those criteria is a very difficult juggling act, but the movie actually does a decent job of it.
For one thing, we’re told very early on about a boy at this high school who tragically died of an HFS overdose. News of the death is handled very tastefully, and we see early on just how deeply the boy’s death affects the school. Yet the tragedy never outweighs the comedy, partly because the dangers of HFS are never mentioned from the start of the second act until the climax. It’s also worth noting that the HFS story thread leads to a gang of vicious bikers, all of whom are presented as very real and serious threats, despite their head-scratching name of “The One-Percenters.”
Additionally, the effects of HFS are presented in ways that somehow manage to be scary and hilarious at the same time. The effects team is partly to thank for this, as special effects are utilized in some very creative and eye-catching ways to help us witness and keep track of HFS’ symptoms. Credit is also due to Johnny Simmons, who absolutely nails his one-scene role as the teen HFS casualty.
Speaking of Scott Pilgrim alumni, Brie Larson puts in a very charming and amusing performance as Jonah Hill’s love interest. She fares much better than Ellie Kemper, whose character could have been removed from the film entirely with no ill consequences. Given that her role in Bridesmaids was similarly worthless, I’m left wondering if Kemper just doesn’t have any talent or if she just has poor choice in projects.
In Rob Riggle’s case, on the other hand, I don’t have to wonder at all. First he was awesome on “The Daily Show.” Then he was really funny in The Hangover. But after his turns here and in The Lorax, there isn’t a doubt in my mind that Riggle needs a new agent ASAP.
Fortunately, Ice Cube is on hand to provide a surprisingly good performance. I’ll grant that his is a one-note character, with nothing to do other than to yell orders, act intimidating, and call our protagonists out on their shit, but it’s a role he plays very well. Ice Cube was very funny in this movie, and if you’ve seen his filmography, you’d know that humor from an Ice Cube performance is a rare thing to be treasured.
I should also give props to Dave Franco (yes, related), who very nicely plays a smug teenager who doesn’t realize until too late that he’s in over his head. Eric is a smug character who’s easy to hate, but Franco doesn’t play him as a one-dimensional villain. He’s just a stupid kid who thinks he’s hot shit but turns out to be a coward.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, Johnny Depp does indeed make a cameo, alongside former “21 Jump Street” costar Peter DeLuise. Even better, they reprise their characters from the TV show, 20 years later. Naturally, I can’t comment on the cameo from the perspective of a fan (remember, I’m not one). But from my layman’s perspective, it was great. Their inclusion made sense, it was funny, it was surprising, and it dovetailed nicely with the development of our two buddy cops. It was a perfect way to pass the torch.
This brings us to the stars of the show, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. The latter was easily the far bigger surprise for me. Apparently, Tatum doesn’t suck because he doesn’t have talent, he sucks because he’s been picking the wrong roles all this time. He shouldn’t be playing romantic comedy leads and action stars, he should be playing parodies of romantic comedy leads and action stars. That’s basically what he does here, and it’s hilarious. I’d love to see what the guy can do if he sticks to comedy.
As for Jonah Hill, take his established schtick, add a few years of experience, and take away about fifty pounds. The guy has developed a knack for physical humor, and he’s developed a skill for playing shlubs with arrested development, but his ability to actually tell a joke does nothing for me. There are also a few times in which he tries to talk himself at great length out of some embarrassing situation (the “you have the right to remain an attorney” line, for example), which is a kind of joke that I always find more annoying than anything else. And while I’m talking about jokes that don’t work, there’s a penis joke near the end of the film that is not funny in any way, shape, or form.
All told — and I realize this isn’t saying very much — 21 Jump Street (2012) was far and away better than I would have thought initially. Several jokes fall flat, and the narrative is totally predictable, but the jokes that parody action films, high school comedies, and remakes in general are all hilarious. Tatum and Hill are both very funny, in large part because they’re playing such comically inept twits.
This isn’t must-see cinema by any means, but it’s easily worth a rental at least.