I have to admit to not having high hopes for 21 Jump Street. The film adaptation of the television series that ran from the late 80s to the early 90s comes directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the duo behind Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. This may be unique material for them, but they handle it well and the film comes off remarkably nimble despite its well-earned hard-R rating.
The reason 21 Jump Street works so well is that it has, at its core, a real sense of what it is and what it isn’t. It is a self-aware comedy, but it doesn’t pound its audience over the head with ironic gestures. The actors are in on the gag, but they play their roles with earnestness and seem to be taking pleasure in what’s going on.
The movie takes the events of the television series into account and springboards 20 years or so into the future. We are introduced to our protagonists, Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum), initially through their experiences as classmates in high school in 2005. Morton is going through a hilarious Eminem phase and isn’t the most popular kid around, while Greg is the popular jock. Years later, the two are in police training and become fast friends after making up for the other’s deficiencies.
After proving relatively incompetent as officers, Greg and Morton are dispatched to an undercover unit because they “look young.” Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) leads the unit and assigns the two to go undercover at a high school in order to root out drug dealers. This leads to an interesting role reversal and the requisite comic set-ups.
As action comedies go, 21 Jump Street is very satisfying. It features plenty of dirty humour and some surprisingly decent action sequences, including a car chase that is hilarious, thrilling and a parody of itself all at once. The filmmakers use and abuse buddy action movie clichés in the process and deliver a jubilant, raunchy send-up of flicks like Bad Boys.
It also helps that we get to care about the characters. Hill’s character is more than a lovable dork; he can be corrupted by the lure of popularity and the possibility of “getting the girl.” Greg, conversely, has experienced popularity and winds up on the other end of the proverbial stick when he realizes that a lot has changed since his high school experience. While 21 Jump Street’s vision of high school as a tolerant, environmentally-friendly place may be a tad optimistic, it pays to remember that the kids are all on drugs.
There are, of course, the usual pitfalls of movies like this. Homophobia tends to come with the territory (plenty of “suck my dick” lines, for instance) and the requisite party scene winds up venturing through its predictable river of mindlessness, but for the most part this picture is really very funny. The friendship Greg and Morton share is interesting and makes for kind of a sugary bromance, while a stereotype-embracing Ice Cube is fantastic and funny.
Make no mistake about it: 21 Jump Street is no masterpiece. Few of these movies are. But it does manage to reach above and beyond the call of duty thanks to endearing characters, pitch-perfect action and vulgar comedy that hits the spot when most comparable efforts miss the mark like a groping teenager on prom night.