LITTLE ROCK I vaguely remember 21 Jump Street, the television series, as one of the first series on the nascent Fox Network when it started broadcasting in 1987. It was the network’s third show actually - after The Tracey Ullman Show and Married ... With Children. It was the network’s first attempt at drama, a police procedural obviously aimed at the Tiger Beat demographic. (It was also the one I didn’t watch.)
The premise of the show was simple - it was about a squad of youthful-looking police officers working undercover in high school to thwart drug rings and the like. It made a teen idol of Johnny Depp, a role he famously resented, and several others who lacked his staying power. And until a little over a year ago, when I heard that Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill were connected to this project, it seemed to me an unlikely candidate to be recycled on the bigger screen.
More than anything else, 21 Jump Street seemed a product of its time, that curious late Reagan era when teenagers could actually get behind the idea of their neighborhood narc as a hero. In a post-Columbine world, when all of us are aware of the murderous potential of high school kids, the original, ’tween-friendly 21 Jump Street seems sort of quaint, closer to Degrassi Junior High than The Wire.
So maybe the only way to approach it was to make it a raunchy comedy, one that neither venerates its source material nor respects propriety. 21 Jump Street, the movie, is an unpretentious yet smart stupid comedy for adolescent boys that is wittily self-aware and thoroughly committed to going as low as they have to go to get a laugh.
Directed by the team of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who provided us with the pleasantly irreverent animated feature Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, the movie sets up economically.
Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) were high school antagonists (Schmidt was briny and socially awkward, Jenko was a jock and prom king) who bonded in the police academy when they discovered they had complementary skill sets.
But even their combined talents weren’t enough to raise them up to competent.
They blow their first bust because they can’t remember how to recite a Miranda warning - and, because of their boyish looks, are exiled to an undercover unit specializing in busting high school dealers (no, it doesn’t make sense but who cares).
Once enrolled in high school, they’re supposed to resume their old person as, but Jenko - the character’s name, by the way, is a reference to Capt. Jenko, a character Frederic Forrest played on the first season of the TV show - switches their cover identities on a lark. So now he’s the science whiz, while Schmidt is the supposed track star.
But our boys soon discover that even though they’re only five years removed from their high school experience, the rules have changed. Now it’s cool to care about your classwork, the environment and to “double-strap” your backpack. The biggest man on campus is an enviro-weenie (played by Dave Franco, unmistakably the little brother of James) who also happens to be the campus connection for a drug called “H.F.S.” that causes euphoria, hallucinations and sometimes, oops, death.
But more important than that, returning to high school gives Schmidt and Jenko (recast respectively as brothers Chad and Doug) a chance for a do-over. Suddenly Schmidt finds himself on the cusp of popularity but faced with the problem of how to actually talk to a girl (to its everlasting credit, the film doesn’t address the inappropriateness of a police officer in his mid-20s trying to make it with some high school girl), while Jenko sort of discovers his inner nerd. It’s not deep, but it’s diverting to watch these actors do silly things.
It’s less fun when the guns come out in the final act, but there’s a moment late in the game that redeems the movie’s predictable beats, before the whole thing dissolves into entropy and disorder.
The film was shot in New Orleans, and I wish they’d actually used the city rather than settling on deliberately generic locations (part of the joke, I know, is the nonspecificity of everything - the police uniforms have “Metro” on their insignia). And I wish Ice Cube, as a wonderfully meta-stereotypical angry police captain, had been given a little bit more screen time.
Other than that, it’s almost perfect.
Not really. But it’s good enough.
21 Jump Street
86 Cast: Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Brie Larson, Dave Franco, Johnny Depp, Ice Cube Directors: Phil Lord and Chris Miller Rating: R, for crude and sexual content, pervasive language, drug material, teen drinking and some violence Running time: 109 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 31 on 03/16/2012
Print Headline: Go ahead and JUMP: Predictable but entertaining, 21 Jump Street mostly hits the right notes