21 Jump Street
About fifteen years ago, Hollywood got it in its head that it would be a great idea to do cinematic remakes of classic television shows. The idea of recycling old material into something new was publicly and critically despised but somehow, far beyond expectation, we got what could only be described as a “butt-load” of really fun remakes. Yeah, there were duds like Inspector Gadget and who can forget Popeye, but for a few magical years there we were given gems like The Fugitive, The Brady Bunch Movie, the wickedly satirical The Addams Family and the hilariously meta and silly Beverly Hillbillies starring the late Jim Varney. As the 90s came to a close, someone must have lost the magical formula for balancing sincerity and self-referential humor because the magic was gone. Suddenly, we found ourselves in a wasteland of unfunny nonsense like Bewitched, Underdog and The Dukes of Hazzard. For over a decade, we’ve been living under the rotting carcass of the movie remake. This weekend, Jonah Hill takes a swing at reinvigorating the genre with his take on the 1987 series, 21 Jump Street. But can 21 Jump Street succeed where so many have failed?
Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) were complete opposites in high school. Neither particularly enjoyed their teen years, seeing in each other a bit of what they wished they had. Jenko, the popular jock, was banned from senior prom because of his failing grades. Schmidt, the thoughtful chubby nerd, didn’t go to prom because he wasn’t popular or athletic enough to get a date. Now, as adults, they find themselves enrolling in police academy where they both succumb to the same shortcomings as they did eight years earlier. This time, however, they team up to help each other graduate.
After a losing their jobs as bike cops (Jenko forgot to read his perp the Miranda Rights and Schmidt couldn’t pull the trigger when his perp rushed him), the two are transferred to an undercover division investigating a new drug making the rounds at a local high school. Angry black Chief Dickson (Ice Cube) gives the boys identities at Sagan High, tailored so Jenko can infiltrate the cool kids to root out the dealers and Schmidt can get in good with the science minded kids in hope of tracking down the supplier. Due to Jenko’s incompetence, their identities get reversed and he ends up in AP Chemistry while Schmidt finds himself the newest member of the track team. Surprisingly, however, high school has changed significantly since eight years ago and Schmidt finds himself in the cool cliche led by Eric (Dave Franco) while Jenko makes friends with the Bakugan-playing geeks. The two struggle with their new social statuses while trying to track down the source of the dangerous new drug.
The brilliance of 21 Jump Street is that instead of trying to mimic the original series, it borrows the premise and then runs in a fresh direction with it. What easily could have been another tired remake is instead a wickedly funny comedy filled with winks and nods to the audience. The movie has the good sense to mock cliched conventions like the buddy cop film and action movies, but pay loving tribute to them at the same time. The screenplay, written by Michael Bacall, spends as much time making fun of itself as it does making fun of everything that wanders into its self-aware crosshairs. Directors Phil Lord & Chris Miller (co-creators of the long-overlooked Clone High) do a fine job, keeping the action scenes well balanced and the comedy tight without ever getting too conceptual. From car chases where nothing seems to blow up to drug-induced hallucinations, the whole film flows incredibly well without letting the action-comedy juggling act throw it off balance. Like those fun movies of the mid-90s, 21 Jump Street has the insight to embrace all of the failings of the movie remake and put a meta spin on it, making for a film that is incredibly hard to hate.
It’s very difficult to talk about 21 Jump Street without talking about its stars. Hill, fresh off his Academy Award nominated turn in Moneyball, does what he does best by bringing his awkward self-aware sense of comedy to the role of Schmidt which is of no surprise. What is shocking, however, is how well Channing Tatum took to comedy. Regular readers may remember that last month in my review of The Vow, I said that Channing Tatum strikes me as a really swell guy who definitely has a place in cinema, but is constantly being done the disservice of being cast in roles that ask him to emote as opposed to playing to his strengths as an actor. 21 Jump Street uses his deadpan blankness to strong comedic effect, making him the standout performer in this movie. From mugging stupidly at the many things he can’t seem to wrap his head around to over-enthusiastically beaming at his own minor successes, its clear that with proper guidance, Tatum has a strong future in comedy. Watching the film, you almost get the feeling that, much like their characters, the action-star Tatum and comedian Hill learned from each other, making them both better for it. Likewise is Ice Cube as Captain Dickson who steals every scene he’s in. The film also features Dave Franco (Jame’s little brother) as the leader of the popular kids and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World‘s Brie Larson as the sweet girl-next-door type and both do an adequate job of bringing some balance to a cast packed with comedy heavy hitters including Rob Riggle, Parks and Recreation‘s Nick Offerman and the crazy cute Ellie Kemper who’s been on my radar since I saw this hilariously vulgar video on YouTube five years ago.
So to answer the question posed at the beginning of this review, yes, 21 Jump Street absolutely proves that movie remakes can still be done well. If this film proves anything its that in doing so, the source material shouldn’t be treated as gospel. What made the original series work so well was that it was groundbreaking and creative in 1987. To try to recapture the serious dramatic tone would be misguided as what was original then has become cliched after twenty five years. By realizing this and using these over-used ideas to their advantage, 21 Jump Street managed to deliver a mocking, loving tribute to the series that inspired it. In the closing moments of the film, Ice Cube alludes to the possibility of a sequel and after seeing this movie, nothing would make me happier.
Oh, and invisotext spoilers, for those of you who really HAVE to know. Just highlight below to see it:
Original series stars Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuise make surprising and important cameo’s in the films climax.