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Entries in 21 Jump Street [2012] (1)

Sunday
Mar182012

21 Jump Street (2012)

Brothers Undercover

21 Jump Street is fucking awesome. There are other ways to describe it, but none are better. The comedic, big-screen re-imagining of the 1980s cop drama gleefully rolls around in filth and recycled plot devices with the carefree abandon of a really smart teenager tripping on mushrooms.

My dream double-bill of Chronicle and Project X has now become a triple-feature, with screenwriter Michael Bacall's astutely observed, hilarious take on modern high-schoolers serving as a perfect capper. I was skeptical as hell to learn that he and star Jonah Hill had teamed up to remake Jump Street as a comedy--especially since Bacall was partially responsible for the hipster misfire Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and the film's Great Big Idea was to cast Channing Tatum as one of the leads. But like the other two films I mentioned, this one surprised the hell out of me with its wit, invention, and big, beating heart.

Tatum and Hill star as officers Jenko and Schmidt, respectively. Seven years ago, Jenko was a high school big shot who loved to harass the overweight, Eminem-loving Schmidt. Flash forward to the two attending the police academy together, and bonding over helping each other overcome their various weaknesses: Jenko is a meat-head who can't memorize the Miranda Warning to save his life ("They always cut away before the cop finishes on TV."), and Schmidt needs a no-nonsense personal trainer to get through the program's brutal obstacle courses.

Upon graduation, they are assigned to patrolling a local park on bicycles. Following what they believe will be a career-defining bust of a biker gang called The One-Percenters, they are reassigned to the Jump Street Program. Run by the cranky, foul-mouthed Captain Dickson (Ice Cube), the unit is comprised of youthful-looking undercover cops who infiltrate schools to fight crime. Jenko and Schmidt are given new identities as brothers and tasked with tracking down the dealers and supplier of a new drug called HFS--the stages of which are beautifully illustrated via comic interstitials and some of the craziest tripping montages I've seen in a mainstream movie.

You've sat through this film before, innumerable times. It's been called Hiding Out, Plain Clothes, and most recently, Never Been Kissed.* The gag is that adults return to high school only to find it overrun by weird animals that they can't relate to anymore. 21 Jump Street twists this slightly by populating Jenko and Schmidt's new world with globally conscious, intelligent teens who think bullying is uncool and studying really hard is sexy. Jenko is completely lost here, but Schmidt rises to the top of the class by being a lovable geek. He gets in good with Eric (Dave Franco), who turns out to be the school's drug kingpin, while Jenko finds refuge in the company of science nerds; they turn out to be better partners than his actual one, who's fallen for Eric's girlfriend (Brie Larson) and now dreams of getting into college.

Unfortunately, the film slips into a thirty-minute dead zone towards the middle of act two. It's still funny (mostly), but Bacall and directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller seem to lose confidence in the bold direction the first part of their movie was headed in. Despite an effort to turn action/undercover-agent conventions on their heads, Jump Street ends up relying on them as crutches--possibly to keep anyone in the audience from getting lost.

For example, a terrific freeway chase scene puts lie to most of the junk science of big, action-movie explosions, with several near-catastrophes fizzling out, where one might expect to see five-story fireballs. It's a terrific idea, but the filmmakers fall back on the Rule of Three rather quickly--meaning that the third near-catastrophe actually ends in a crazy blaze. Instead of sticking to their absurdist guns, Bacall and company push the bit too far, creating a dreary five-minute lead-up to an inevitable conclusion.

The same can be said for the entirety of Schmidt's love story. It is completely without twist or commentary, meaning there's nothing at all to appreciate or anticipate. Hill's chemistry with Larson is alright, even cute, but it belongs in a far more earnest movie than this meta-farce. I'm not even opposed to a love story in a picture like this, but it should at least live up to the out-of-the-box thinking that makes everything else so much fun.

There's a lot more to talk about here, but I don't want to ruin any of the surprises. For those of you wondering about the much-rumored cameo: it's true, and is a far more effective appearance than Bill Murray's over-hyped and underwhelming turn in Zombieland. What's so great is that Bacall stacks one revelation on top of another, on top of another, on top of another, until what should have been a disposable joke becomes not only the literal death of the old franchise, but also the thread that holds the new one together.

Oh, yes, the filmmakers leave the door swinging shamelessly wide open for a sequel. I don't know how I feel about that. I'd much rather this crew slyly tackle other material. Can you imagine Small Wonder in IMAX 3D? How about Alf by way of Prometheus, or a grim-'n-gritty Barney Miller?

I'm getting way ahead of myself.

Regardless of how you feel about remakes, Channing Tatum,** or the original 21 Jump Street, you owe it to yourself as a fan of outrageous so-dumb-they're-smart comedies to give this one a chance. That's assuming you're a fan of those movies to begin with. If you're not, I highly recommend this film anyway. It's a cheaper than drugs, and the high will likely stay with you long after the experience is over.

*There's probably a more recent example than a thirteen-year-old movie (!), but I can't come up with one at the moment.

**I'd like to formally apologize to the actor for recently having referred to him as being, "often stilted and unconfident, as if his brain is constipated and words are sharts weakly dribbling from his mouth." He's a real star here, sparring nicely with Hill and making a case for himself as a comedic actor more than a dramatic one.