They’ve just about reached the bottom of the barrel for making film franchises out of old TV shows, at least until we get Cop Rock: The Movie. I never watched a single episode of 21 Jump Street, and nobody I know has, except for my friend’s sixteen-year-old daughter, who has a thing for Johnny Depp. So, the makers of this film, directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord, and screenwriters Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill, did the smart thing–they goofed on the show, instead of revered it.
We get a wink from the writers early on, when the police official who assigns two hapless rookies into an undercover program at a high school says that the police department has no good ideas, so they just keep recycling old ones. So 21 Jump Street, the movie version, is completely aware that it’s a studio-bred cash grab, and satirizes it.
Our heroes are played by Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. They were high school classmates, though Hill was the nerd and Tatum the popular jock. For different reasons, they do not attend the prom, and there’s a funny scene in which both of them sit on the school steps, crying.
A few years later they are both in the police academy, and form a friendship. But they are idiots, and it’s not as glamorous as they’d hoped, as they draw bicycle duty at a park. They try to bust some bikers doing drugs, but Hill is manhandled by his perp (skinning his elbow), and Tatum forgets to read his suspect his Miranda warnings, a particular bugaboo for him.
Because they are youthful looking (this too is played as a joke, as Tatum doesn’t look that young and everyone he meets thinks he looks way too old for high school), they are sent undercover to find the dealer and supplier of a dangerous new drug. They end up getting their assignments mixed up, so Hill ends up the popular kid and Tatum runs with the science nerds. Hill falls for a girl (Brie Larson), who is the girlfriend of the pusher (played by Dave Franco, who looks a lot like his brother James). But the case ultimately plays second fiddle to the dynamics of the deep cover, as each relives his high school experience from the other side of the fence.
I laughed a lot at 21 Jump Street, and that means something, as I am stingy with laughter in movies. Much of the humor comes from the attitude, as nothing about this film is meant to be realistic. Ice Cube appears as the stereotypical “angry black captain,” and he addresses this by saying, “I’m a captain, I’m black, and sometimes I’m angry.” The situations the officers go through are also amusing, such as when Hill has to audition for Peter Pan and Tatum has to do an oral report dressed as his favorite molecule. The Peter Pan bit leads to my favorite scene in the movie, when the boys chase the bad guys in a double-steering-wheeled driver’s ed car while Hill is dressed as Peter Pan. The levels of absurdity are vast.
Though I enjoyed 21 Jump Street, I don’t want to suggest this is some kind of classic. There are way too many dick jokes, which indicates laziness to me, and the ending, a routine shootout and chase (albeit involving stretch limos) is a let down after the zaniness of what has come before. But Hill is a pleasure to watch, and even Tatum, who after a disastrous turn on Saturday Night Live left me thinking he had zero comic timing, is used effectively.
I was also very glad to see that the tradition of actors who appeared on the original TV show grace the film with a cameo. Say no more.
My grade for 21 Jump Street: B.