I’ll admit it. I groaned inwardly when I first heard they were making a 21 Jump Street movie. There was even some communal, commiserative groaning in a conversation or two with movie-going friends. A movie based on a Fox television series remembered mainly for helping launch the career of Johnny Depp and briefly reminding the world that Dom DeLuise had a son—does it get any less exciting than that?
Months later, after actually seeing the new Jonah Hill/Channing Tatum film, I take those groans back. Against all odds, 21 Jump Street is an immensely enjoyable, frequently hilarious film.
The premise is unchanged. Two youthful-looking (and since this is a comedy, spectacularly incompetent) police officers are assigned to a special division that places undercover agents in schools in an attempt to stop illegal activity. For officers Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum), fresh out of the academy, this is not so much an opportunity as a richly deserved exile. (Reading an apprehended suspect his Miranda Rights should be part of an arrest. Mimicking the tea-bagging of said perp and discharging a firearm in the air in celebration? Not so much.) Their mission, as delivered by a purposefully prototypical Angry Black Police Captain (Ice Cube): Contain the spread of a dangerous new drug that has shown up at a local high school.
For Jenko, the return to high school represents a return to his glory days. For Schmidt, it’s more of a return to the scene of a crime where the body outlined in chalk looks suspiciously like his own.
Unlike so many comic remakes, reboots and long-delayed sequels, 21 Jump Street doesn’t overly rely on nostalgia to generate its laughs. That’s not to say there’s not a ample supply of humorous references, both sly and overt, to the original series—it’s just that both the directors (Phil Lord and Chris Miller) and writers (Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill) seem to understand that such references work best when they support rather than eclipse the principle material.
As Schmidt, Hill is not doing anything he hasn’t done before, but that doesn’t make his deadpan-acerbic delivery any less funny, especially alongside the earnest doofus-ness of his partner. For his part, Channing Tatum still has a long way to go before his visage is carved next to Mr. Pitt’s into the side of Mt. Hunks-Who-Are-Great-Actors (though he may well be the most successful male stripper-turned-actor of his time); nonetheless, he flexes some comic chops in 21 Jump Street that should convert at least a few haters into tolerators.
Hill and Tatum are supported by a strong ensemble of recognizable faces, including Daily Show alum Rob Riggle, Ellie Kemper (The Office) and Chris Parnell (Saturday Night Live).
But though “ensemble piece” usually refers to cast and crew, 21 Jump Street is even more impressive when viewed as an ensemble of comedic approaches. There are laughs to suit all tastes—from sarcastic jibes to pratfalls, from pokes at film conventions (“I really thought that was going to explode.”) to exuberant, undeniably infectious, juvenile displays. And each is conveyed in a measure appropriate to its form. As a result, there’s just not much time spent watching 21 Jump Street without at least a smile on one’s face.
As enjoyable as 21 Jump Street is, there’s at least one good reason to resent it—it’s destined to be an exception among rules. As such, this is precisely the kind of remake that will cause future rehashes and relaunches to be viewed with a hope they don’t deserve. Tickets will be bought. Large popcorn and drink purchased (one free refill!). The lights will dim and the latest nostalgia-parasite, be it The Return of Mork and Mindy or a hip, big-screen reboot of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air starring Jaden or Willow Smith, will be unleashed. Inevitably, it will suck. When that happens, remember that 21 Jump Street is at least partially to blame.
Director: Phil Lord, Chris Miller
Writer: Michael Bacall (story & screenplay); Jonah Hill (story); Patrick Hasburgh & Stephen J. Cannell (television series)
Starring: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube
Release Date: Mar. 16, 2012