21 Jump Street (2012)

Film #24: 21 Jump Street (2012)

21 Jump Street is an action-comedy film loosely based off the TV series of the same name that ran on Fox from 1987 to 1991. I never saw the show, but apparently all the 2012 film takes from it is the premise: Youthful-looking police officers are placed undercover as high school students. The two youthful cops that the film follows are Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum). They’re much the same as they were in high school – Schmidt intelligent but awkward, Jenko athletic but an idiot – but this is 7 years later, so even though they were at odds in their schooling days, they quickly become the best of friends during training. They’re terribly incompetent cops, though, and are stuck patrolling a park on bicycles. They get reassigned to the 21 Jump Street program after Jenko irresponsibly detains a perp, eschewing reading the Miranda rights in favor of humping the drug dealer while telling him to suck it.

Last year set a record for the number of films that weren’t based on original story material – being sequels, prequels, spin-offs or remakes – and the movie-going public has become vocally cynical about this aspect of the industry. It’s understandable that that skepticism would extend to this movie, a remake of an 80s TV show that often featured “morals of the story” and public service announcements. 21 Jump Street wisely acknowledges this trepidation and chooses to embrace – and satire – the worn-out molds from which it’s cast. It is, in many ways, a film entirely about tropes and stereotypes. And it’s damn funny, too.

It’s nothing new to bend the 4th wall and try to be “meta” with genre stereotypes. Plenty of other films have included some of the self-aware jokes that 21 Jump Street has – whether it’s Schmidt overtly ragging on remakes by saying how unoriginal the police department is being, or Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) talking about how, despite it being a stereotype, he really just happens to be an angry black police commander. This sort of winking at the audience has, in itself, become cliche, and a lazy comedy film wouldn’t go any further. But writers Hill and Michael Bacall go one step further and show how stereotypes can only take you so far, whether it’s in comedy or in life. The reason Jenko doesn’t even know the Miranda rights is because cop shows cut away before they finish saying them. And when the pair is confronted with high school cliques that break the classic nerd / jock paradigm, such as hipsters and culturally sensitive cool kids who try at school, they get confused and angry.

This awareness allows the film to get away with silly things that we’d otherwise be calling foul on. When gym teacher Mr. Walters (Rob Riggle) comes across the duo after they’ve just taken some heavy psychoactives, he lets them go, and their subsequent outlandish behavior yields them no disciplinary reaction at all. And the “crazy high school party” that they throw is less playing with cliches than just being one, all the way down to having hot chicks dance with the autistic nerdy kids. But these scenes are minor offenses compared to the overall intelligence of the film, and they’re still funny anyway.

Make no mistake, this is an intelligent film, at least in the sense of its awareness. I know that it swears – a lot. Lots of phallic references and f-bombs. Ice Cube’s character is particularly profane. But I disagree with the notion that obscenities inherently make something less intelligent. There’s a way to be both vulgar and intelligent. It happens to be the style of comedy that I appreciate the most, and it’s on great display in this film.

Action-comedies have two sides to uphold, however, and can’t just rely on laughs. Luckily, 21 Jump Street‘s action scenes are solid, if nothing revolutionary. Like the humor, they’re all over the stereotype spectrum. On one end, the party sequence (probably the film’s weakest, looking back) has a conventional fight where Jenko manhandles a whole gang while Hill flounders comically. But then there are two chase scenes that introduce playful variations – the first featuring Schmidt and Jenko in a driver’s training car, complete with teacher wheel and brakes, the second a three-way chase scene with limos. They keep the pace of the movie going and prevent it from deflating in the second half. The result is a consistently enjoyable feature.

21 Jump Street is a film that plays on familiar images and storylines, vulgarly skewering them for our pop cultured enjoyment. Hill and Tatum are an excellent comedic duo, and with their treatment of this clever script, you end up with a thoroughly hilarious movie.

Final rating: 8.5/10

–James A. Janisse

Stray Observations:

  • Yes, yes, Johnny Depp (as well as Peter DeLuise and Holly Robinson Peete) has a cameo. And it’s actually extremely violent. It was pretty funny, but I’m not sure that he was necessarily enjoying himself being there.
  • There’s actually a bunch of cameos from TV comic actors. The ever-present Chris Parnell plays the theater teacher, The Office‘s Ellie Kemper is Jenko’s adorable science teacher who is way into him, and New Girl‘s Jake Johnson has two short but funny scenes as the principal.
  • Brie Larson plays Schmidt’s love interest, and I thought that she did an amazing acting job. I’ll have to pay more attention to things that she’s in. Thumbs up, Miz Larson!
  • I laughed a ton when Schmidt brought tacos to a party, and even more when they referenced it later on. And I refuse to believe that that wasn’t a direct nod to that damn Taco Bell commercial.
  • One of the best moments was when Schmidt and Jenko were curtailing all the age obstructions that come with throwing a party in high school. Freaking hilarious.
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