The origins of 21 Jump Street may be lost on the younger generations Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum attract, yet they manage to pull it off anyway. The filmmakers create an understanding with the audience that they’re in on the joke but that they’re still going to deliver a thoughtful, fun film.
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum occupy the cliche nerd and jock, respectively. On the opposite sides of the high school social spectrum, Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) find themselves in the police academy after graduation. Realizing Schmidt has the brains while Jenko has the brawn they become friends and, soon, partners. However, not long after leaving the Academy they are assigned to an undercover unit on 21 Jump Street. There they are told by their cliche angry, black captain (who characterizes himself as such), Cpt. Dickson (Ice Cube), that they will go undercover at a high school where a new drug has been circulating. This obviously excites Jenko but makes Schmidt nervous as they expect to resume their old high school roles. But in the years since they’ve left, high school culture has changed dramatically in such a way that it seems Schmidt is the “cool” one while Jenko is the outsider.
What really makes this film work is the great report between Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. Knowingly playing opposites who have a deep connection as friends and partners, they play to their strengths while also playing with expectations. From the beginning the film rightly acknowledges that it’s a remake of a show that’s almost forgotten today, and continues to interact with the audience in this way. Of course, being self-aware (or meta) has become a sort of trend that can easily tip the scales, yet the film really pulls it off well. It acknowledges itself just enough to make the audience feel comfortable that the filmmakers know what they are doing and that trust puts the audience at ease.
While everyone expects Jonah Hill to be the wild one of the bunch, him and Tatum are always operating at the same level. It’s not only surprising that Tatum, who isn’t known for his comedic chops, can keep up with Hill but that Hill also doesn’t try and outdo him. They create a believable team and friendship that sustains the entire film. But it’s not a studio comedy, or high school film, without a girl to chase and it’s Schmidt who gets the love interest played by Brie Larson. Seemingly the girlfriend of “cool kid” and drug dealer Eric Molson (Dave Franco), Molly (Larson) takes an immediate liking to Schmidt and the inexperienced Schmidt obviously takes a liking to her.
Since the movie is blatantly acknowledging and playing with the cliches of it’s genre and the expectations that come with that, it should be very obvious that it’s Schmidt who will become the popular one while Jenko is relegated to hang out with the nerds and geeks. And while it is obvious, the film is written and directed well enough by Michael Bacall (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) and Phil Lord & Chris Miller (Clouding With a Chance of Meatballs), respectively, that it takes the audience along for the ride anyway. Ultimately, that’s what the film does best. It knows the audience knows it’ll be adhering to a formula, and while they generally do stick with that formula, they still have a lot of fun with it.
It’s the type of comedy one expects may be overreaching and bloated but somehow all the pieces come together to create a cohesive whole. There are some gags that fall flat, like Ice Cube’s Captain Dickson. Self-aware of his cliche character as their angry, black boss is amusing at first but Ice Cube isn’t able to really inject anything more into him. But the running joke about how popular high school kids are more sensitive and care about the environment, as opposed to when Jenko and Schmidt were there and it was the jocks that ruled the school, is not only a keen observation of our current culture but it also provides a lot of laughs like how on the first day of school Jenko punches a black, gay kid in the face for studying only to find out that he’s in a world he doesn’t understand anymore.
It’s a film that shouldn’t be as intelligent as it is, and shouldn’t be as entertaining as it is. Yet it manages to walk a fine line between parody and taking itself seriously enough to put together a bona fide film and not just a popcorn comedy. It may not be the greatest of its genre and it may not be a revelatory film but what it is, is a thoroughly entertaining buddy comedy that proves even the most random and head scratching remakes can be made into something that stands on its own.
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