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Non-Review Review: 21 Jump Street

The review was embargoed until the 5th March 2012.

The obvious point of comparison to Jonah Hill’s big-screen adaptation of 21 Jump Street is the Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson version of Starsky & Hutch. After all, both take classic cult television shows and recycle them for modern audiences, taking dramatic plot devices that seem hilarious and goofy in hindsight and playing them as straight comedy. There is, however, one very crucial difference between that adaptation of a seventies cop show and this adaptation of an eighties cop show: 21 Jump Street works. Mostly.

White knights...

A lot of it is the core concept. As corny as it might seem in retrospect, Starsky & Hutch is a fairly conventional television show. It’s likely that we’ll look back on N.Y.P.D. Blue the same way in another decade or so, and so playing it as a farce seemed a little surreal. However, the very concept of 21 Jump Street is inherently ridiculous. It’s about a bunch of adult police officers who infiltrate schools in order to spy on kids. Johnny Depp, the star of the show, has come out and admitted that the show was “borderline fascist”, with all sorts of creepy undertones. Being entirely honest, I always thought it was simply very silly. And this is coming from a guy who loves Miami Vice.

So the attempt to reimagine the series as a comedy with a script from Jonah Hill and Michael Bacall actually works. Indeed, the script itself is remarkably and hilarious candid with its audience while setting up the somewhat flimsy premise. When our two heroes are assigned to the eponymous unit, their superior talks about how the big shots seem to have run out of original ideas, and instead are “recycling” a “programme” from the eighties. It’s a great gag, one that is remarkably honest with the audience – this is a concept that has been used before, and is in no way clever and original of itself. Like Jonah Hill’s bumbling and insecure rookie, it can’t help but be a little appealing.

"Not-so-Slim Shady"... (Okay, I borrowed THAT one from the film...)

“Embrace your stereotype!” the director of the undercover programme instructs them. Played by a steal-stealing Ice Cube, he is an angry black police officer. Throughout the film, other characters repeatedly point out that the two undercover cops are quite far past graduation age. Sure, most of the script is wonderfully juvenile jokes, but the script itself is remarkably smart – playing with the audience’s (and the characters’) expectations, and giving members of the audience a great deal of credit.

It’s appealingly honest and up-front, and I think that helps sell the rest of the movie. I love the movie’s opening joke, which wryly observes that most of the target audience for this film probably went to high school over a decade after the television show ended, as well as brilliantly parodying pop culture nostalgia – is that how I’ll look back on 2005 in a decade or two?

Rookie blues...

Once you get past the premise, there’s an engagingly efficient (if mostly predictable) script with all the trappings you’d expect from a comedy about two grown men back in high school. The one whowas nerdy ends up being cool and the one whowas cool ends up socially isolated and nerdy. It’s not revolutionary, and it’s not going to surprise anybody. However, there are some wonderful gags that break up the film, and the movie features two of the most hilarious car chases I have seen in quite some time.

Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller do an exceptional job sending up the types of set pieces that we expect in a cop film, taking the level of parody one step outside itself. There’s a rather wonderful bicycle chase sequence, and a beautiful early scene following our two rookies on patrol. Throughout it all, there’s a wonderful sense of self-awareness, and Lord and Miller gleefully abuse the use of epic slow motion and ridiculously over-the-top action sequences, playing off our expectations of the genre.

Cop yourself on...

“It’s like the closing scene of Die Hard,” one character observes towards the end of the film, “but its our lives.” Despite the rather ruthless parodying of these conventions, there’s a sense that all involved harbour an affection (perhaps guiltily) for both the source material and the clichés and tropes they son thoroughly mock. And I think that stands in the movie’s credit. It is well-observed, but it never seems too cruel or too mean. It never seems vicious.

That said, it’s Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum who carry the film. Even going through the standard high-school comedy trappings, like a drug trip, the two leads manage to inject a wonderful sense of energy into the film. This isn’t a surprise from Hill, who generally proves a solid comedic actor. However, Tatum seems quite a good sport in the role of the stereotypical dumb jock, and the two leads have a strange chemistry that carries the film through a conventional plot and a couple of obvious or misfiring gags.

Grow up? Never!

Indeed, the cast is pretty much the movie’s secret weapon, with a wonderful ensemble getting the most from the material. Rob Riggle and Ellie Kemper make for some nice faculty members, and Dave Franco is great as the school’s resident douchebag drug dealer. He even gets to sing about the environment on his guitar. Franco takes a fairly shallow and two-dimensional character and adds not only shades of depth, but also manages to get some of the movie’s better laughs. I already mentioned Ice Cube as “da chief”, but he’s so brilliantly over-the-top that he deserves another mention.

21 Jump Street has a great start and a solid ending. It does drag a little bit in the middle, but I think the cast sustain it beautifully. It might seem remarkably juvenile, but I think the movie deserves a considerable amount of credit for the way that it treats its audience. It’s silly, but it never treats its viewers like idiots, which is quite charming.

14 Responses

  1. Interesting. I’ll have to give this movie a second thought. Based on the trailers, it looks rather stupid, but trailers are often misleading and don’t fully capture what the filmmakers attempt to do.

    • [This comment has been updated because it was published before I was informed of the embargo on reviews of the film.]

      • I meant that the trailer makes the movie look stupid despite how the actual film plays out. “Rat Race” had this same problem, although even more so. I refused to see that movie because of the trailer until my brother forced me to sit down and watch it. I laughed so hard that I had to stop the video. It’s now one of my favorite movies. I’ll give “21 Jump Street” a chance due to your review.

  2. Love Dave Franco! Will def see this

  3. Only saw the trailer for this last night and was completely sold within 2 minutes. Only downside is that it looks like they used all the funny bits.

    Loving Mr Tatum’s output over the past year or so.(despite the cheese). He’s got a great comedy streak.

  4. I’m embargoed on writing a review of this until the 16th, but yeah, I loved this enormously. It’s incredibly funny and it treats its characters with respect, which is a big deal given that I expected absolutely nothing from it.

    • Yep, I wasn’t told about the embargo when I originally published (it wasn’t mentioned at the screening, in emails, etc.), and was then told to wait until the 5th March 2012. Very strange taht the same doesn’t apply to you. I agree, it does what it sets out to do pretty exceptionally well.

  5. i cannot see myself sitting down thru the whole film,sorry.

  6. \i totally agree with the above comment,the trailer makes it looks awful, it’s a much smarter comedy than how they pitched it. I’ll definitely watch it again when it comes out on dvd.

    Ah that makes sense, I thought that kid looked a lot like James Franco

  7. I’m curious what jokes or gags you thought misfired. I might be a little too bullish on this movie, but I think it’s easily one of the best comedies in the last five years.

    • It’s been a while, but I remember think the Ellie Kemper thread was a bit weird – it was literally there one minute, and referenced towards the end. Or the vomitting gag in the toilets which – while I thought was funny, went on a little too long. Or the nerdy stuff with Tatum and the science club which was obviously a pretty important piece of character development, but didn’t seem to bring too many laughs. (That said, I’m probably being nitpicky. a lot of it worked, and really worked very well. I love that bit with Peter Pan on stage, or the car chase with the curious lack of explosions.)

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