"21 Jump Street" morphs into an action comedy with a tonal complexity
What this interpretation sacrifices in teachable moments, it makes up for in intelligent giddiness
Channing Tatum has got bust-out talents as a really funny, self-aware comic actor
The Late-1980s pop culture relic “21 Jump Street” was a primo specimen of a TV police procedural with a catchy hook: A team of fresh-faced cops work undercover as high school kids, reporting back to their tough/earnest boss at the address listed above.
The hit series ran for four years, and was notably progressive in its willingness to incorporate newsmaking social issues, including AIDS, homophobia, and child abuse. But 25 years later, “21 Jump Street” the TV show is remembered primarily as the career kickstarter of Johnny Depp as a young actor with an obvious something. As it turns out, dim memories and a new generation of pop culture consumers work to the great advantage of “21 Jump Street” the movie: What this fast, cheeky, and very funny interpretation of the original premise sacrifices in teachable moments, it makes up for in intelligent giddiness.
Shaped by the precocious comedic smarts of talent-on-a-roll Jonah Hill (who not only costars but also developed the story with Michael Bacall and is one of the executive producers), the movie morphs into an action comedy with a tonal complexity that marks it as a very contemporary creative project. It’s part homage and part wink at the past. It jokes about high school but is also a sensitive sociological study of those crucial years. It bridges slapstick and action. It’s quick-witted with its pop references. Oh, have you heard? Depp makes a delightful cameo appearance!
On the surface, “21 Jump Street” follows the crime-fighting antics of odd-couple cop partners Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum). Their wonky dynamic is established in a perfectly placed opening flashback to 2005, when the two were real high school students – Schmidt the klutzy, anxious nerd with a brain; Jenko the athletic, academically challenged coolio. Seven years later, when both police rookies are coincidentally assigned to an undercover–high schooler program, the duo are prepared to play out those same life scripts, until a mix-up alters fate. Schmidt is assigned a class schedule befitting a popular non-Einstein; Jenko is shuffled into advanced-placement chemistry. (”Ap-chemistry,” he calls it, laboriously reading his course list.)
Given a do-over, the two get to reexperience those less than wonder years. They get to work issues out. And by the way they get to bust a drug ring fronted by a smart and popular guy played with oddball charisma by Dave Franco. (The curiosity isn’t that he’s the brother of James Franco; it’s that he’s so interestingly weird. Okay, like his brother.)
But that, as I say, is on the surface. Underneath, “21 Jump Street” is a riot of risks that pay off, the biggest of which might be handing Tatum funny business. And now for the revelation: The guy’s got bust-out talents as a really funny, self-aware comic actor. With all appropriate salutes to the busy fellow’s famous abs, and with full forgiveness for his participation in “The Vow,” I am feeling the Channing charm for the first time.
And wow, those scenes where the smart actor, playing a ”dumb” character who realizes he’s not as dumb as he has always believed he is, fakes playing a dumb guy to mess with his smart partner’s head are kind of perfect. Also, Tatum can sustain a great, I mean great, Dumb Face.
Under the limber direction of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (“Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”), and working from a screenplay by Bacall – a script jammed, by the way, with so many oinky references to male reproductive equipment that I choose to believe the producers were rising to a dare – Hill and Tatum play their Mutt-and-Jeff act against a supporting cast equally fast on their feet.
A refresher viewing of any old “Jump Street” episode may sharpen your appreciation for the kind of earnest ’80s-TV police captain that Ice Cube is tweaking in his funky turn as Schmidt and Jenko’s boss, but the joke is equally welcome without the historical background. Explaining why he’s assigning Schmidt and Jenko to shutting down the school drug ring after the death of one student, the captain tells it true: ”This kid is white, so people actually give a s—.” There’s room for laughs and truth at this newly reopened address. A-