Buddy team, just for laughs
The latest Hollywood recycling from the Eighties is 21 Jump Street, based on the 1987-1991 TV series that gave Johnny Depp his start. The original concerned a group of cool, multicultural young cops who went undercover at high schools. This version stars just two white guys, Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, and is a messier, deliberately raucous and irreverent riff on the theme of Adam McKay’s better written 2010 The Other Guys, about a pair of underdog cops who make a name for themselves. Will Ferrell was the Jonah Hill character, and Mark Wahlberg is the tough guy played by Tatum. This new Jump Street, which trades in drug and dick jokes, is good fun, but functions best as a buddy picture. Hill and Tatum actually pose as brothers, living in Hill’s character’s parents’ house, and they complement each other. They are set off by James Franco’s cute, less famous brother Dave as a charismatic and curiously untarnished bad guy. Franco is Eric Molson, the high school’s “dangerous drug dealer” of the TV pilot. Then it was Extasy, this time it’s something new and multiphasic. The other standout character is a comically surly Ice Cube, as the tough-talking captain who gives Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) their assignments. “All they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us not to notice,” the captain says of the undercover project, deprecating both this comedy and its source. Is this a great movie? No. Is it entertaining? In the low-standard world of post Apatow comedies, definitely.
One of the unintentional jokes of this comedy is that it features men posing unconvincingly as high schoolers in a movie, where as usual, most of the other actors playing students are too old as well. There are a couple of reedy boys, while Hill’s romantic interest, Brie Larson, looks older than her actual 23 years. Hill, for the record, is 28 and Tatum is 31. That they blatantly don’t begin to fit into high school as the baby faced Eighties TV cast headed by Johnny Depp did is the first signal that this comedy is cynical about its source. Jonah Hill, originally the chubby nerd of Apatow comedies, gained cred and got an Oscar nom for his serious role (as a statistics nerd) in Moneyball. In other roles he increasingly projects a sympathetic and warm image, and that continues here, contributing to the comedy’s positivity, despite its foul language and violence (neither excessive by current standards, but pretty heavy considering this would seem to be a movie for kids). Channing Tatum gets to relax and branch out here from his saccharine Nicolas Sparks weepies and go back to some of the physical ease he showed in his hunky dance role six years ago in Step Up. He lets himself look silly as he did when he donned tights for the dance movie and he plays his hunkiness for goofiness.
According to the story setup, Schmidt and Jenko were in high school together but not friends. Schmidt was a bad pseudo Eminem with braces. High school was really hard for him. Jenko was a jock who had an easier time; but neither attended prom. In police school they bond because they’re complimentary opposites: Jenko is good at the jock things and Schmidt can ace the written tests. They make it through but are pathetic as cops till the undercover gig, when by a sequence of foulups, they become winners. For both men, the undercover assignment is a chance to redo what didn’t work so well the first time. This time they get to give a wild party and to attend prom.
The other big joke here is that high school is so different now. The coolest bad guy (Franco) is an eco-activist and a vegan. Tolerance is big and all the old values are reversed, all the fault of “Glee,” Jenko declares. By a further twist, Jenko and Schmidt get their undercover names confused and Jenko winds up having to bond with the science nerds, while Schmidt must woo the blonde babe (Larson).
21 Jump Street offers laughs and keeps the action going, but The Other Guys is a better movie. Its plot is more interesting because it’s marginally believable and in its better written plot the action finale makes more logical sense. Jump Street’s last segment is just another insane shoot-’em-up, though it does boast a funny John Woo-Tarantino face-off enlivened by the surprise appearance of none other than Johnny Depp himself, as a higher level undercover law enforcement officer who gets grotesquely offed. It’s 25 years since Depp began the original “Jump Street.” He claimed (with some justification) to dislike it and called it “fast food.” He was to gain indie cred by starring in John Waters’ Crybaby playing a wrong-side-of-the-tracks teen. You may ask yourself if the talented Depp has avoided “fast food” as a megastar: what is Pirates of the Caribbean? It’s plain that Jonah Hill is not going to move into serious drama as a result of Moneyball. But his appealing humanity could prove a motivator for erstwhile plump high school nerds. In Jump Street he turns out to almost be the popular guy he wasn’t seven years earlier in high school, but what counts is that he emerges as likable. All the while the movie holds out the bromance dream that male opposites attract, and aren’t as different as people think. Hill may seem the obvious nerd and Tatum the dreamboat, but neither has the kind of edge and charm and youthful sparkle Dave Franco represents. Whatever that may mean, this movie is too disrespectful of both its source and its leads to be as memorable or hilarious as such Apatow semi-classics as Super Bad and Knocked Up. We won’t even speak of The Sitter.
21 Jump Street opened in the UK 16th March 2012.
DIRECTOR: PHIL LORD , CHRIS MILLER
WRITER: MICHAEL BACALL
STARS: JONAH HILL, CHANNING TATUM, DAVE FRANCO
RUNTIME: 109 MINS APPROX