“Nobody knows anything.” — William Goldman.
21 Jump Street, as you probably know by now, is a movie which gives a comedic treatment to the late-1980s Fox television series, which starred a pre-Tim-Burton Johnny Depp, about young police detectives who go undercover as high school students. The movie was directed by Phil Lord & Chris Miller (who last directed the kids’ movie Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs) , stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum as an odd-couple pair of under-achieving cops, and comes with a well-earned R-rating.
The fact that I went to see this movie at all is a triumph of social media. I had written 21 Jump Street off. As a kid I’d seen the Fox TV show the movie was based on, and I liked the idea of seeing it flipped as a comedy premise, but I saw all those trailers way too many times, and wasn’t impressed. Like those posters above, the trailers focused on the easy, tired jokes. Like this exchange:
“You have the right to remain… an attorney…”
“Did you just say “You have the right to remain an attorney?”
I’m so tired of that modern trend, in movie trailers and on all CBS comedies, where one character says something and another character repeats it in disbelief, as if that automatically makes it funnier. The trailers also make heavy use of the bit where one character is stabbed and calls it “Awesome!” which isn’t all that funny on its own. Overall, the whole movie had a kind of unappealing washed-out look which made it look visually stale — and even on the other side of it now, I’d still say that the cinematography by Barry Peterson is hardly the most inspired element of the movie.
But going online in the last two weeks, and seeing a steady trickle of positivity towards the movie turn into a full-on stream, I decided to give 21 Jump Street the courtesy of my ten bucks.
Something weird happened. All the stuff I didn’t like in the trailers (besides the photography) totally works in the context of the full movie. That aforementioned exchange of dialogue comes from a scene where police captain Nick Offerman dresses down Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum’s characters, and. rather than the trailer ruining the scene’s best joke as so often happens, that scene has many more (and much better) jokes than the trailer implies. The best is the one where Nick Offerman, in his brilliant deadpan, familiar to fans of Parks & Recreation, directly addresses all of your potential misgivings about a comedic re-interpretation of a nearly-forgotten Fox TV show. It’s so blatantly and boldly self-referential that it somehow addresses the issue head-on and manages to be charming in a way that most self-referential jokes aren’t.
That scene from the trailer where Jonah Hill turns around to find a knife embedded in his back and decides it’s “awesome?” By the time that happens in the movie, you have gotten to know the character, a sad sack in high school who, when given the chance to go back as an undercover cop, gets to re-live his high school years with some more confidence. So the knife beat is a character moment, where realizing how much tougher he’s become and bragging about it tells you something about what this guy is thinking, instead of a throw-away gag using violence as a punchline and having no physical consequence.
That’s why this movie is better than so many more in its over-populated genre: It starts with the characters. It’s not as if these are the most detailed characters ever written — Jonah Hill, as a high school nerd who gets the chance to hang with the popular kids, and Channing Tatum, as the high school cool guy whose inattention to study made him an underachiever but adequately suited for police work — they’re comedic archetypes, but they’re recognizable. And they’re given more dimension as the movie goes on. Their friendship is interesting and believable, the emotional center of the story, and it makes the movie more involving than most studio comedies as a result of it.
I’ve liked Jonah Hill since I first wondered “Who was that weird kid in that scene in The 40 Year Old Virgin?”, but as much as he’s been a deft comic performer right from the get-go, he’s also clearly a smart shepherd of material which suit his talents, having shaped this project with screenwriter Michael Bacall (Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World). It’s pretty stupid that I saw how good Hill was in Moneyball and still underestimated him to the extent that I allowed a couple bum trailers to make me consider skipping this movie. I would have missed out.
The script for 21 Jump Street is fun, surprising, and full of jokes — don’t like one? another is right around the corner — and it’s also quite literally a gift to Channing Tatum. People underestimate Channing Tatum, because he’s man-pretty and comes off as a bit of a meatball, but I’ve never had a problem with the guy. He’s been good and likable in movies like A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints and Haywire, and if G.I. Joe was terrible, it can’t be blamed on him. If you click through to that G.I. Joe review you’ll see that I suggested Mark Wahlberg needs to watch his back with this Channing Tatum guy around: I still think it’s a good comparison — if anything, Channing Tatum seems to have more self-awareness. As much as I loved The Other Guys, it’s still hard to tell if Wahlberg is fully aware of why he’s so funny. Channing Tatum, as his recent SNL hosting appearance also shows, has a willingness to play, and when Hill and Bacall’s script to 21 Jump Street serves him up great comedic lobs, he crushes them every time.
Pretty much everybody’s good in the movie: Ice Cube, erasing a decade of crap to come back just as funny as he was in the first Friday, Three Kings, and Torque; Rob Riggle in a truly weird supporting performance that initially seems to have little point; all the kids in the high school scenes, particularly the very cute Brie Larson (the aforementioned Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World) and the very funny Dave Franco (Fright Night, James’s family reunions) as a shifty drug dealer; right down to the still-surprising-even-if-you-know-he’s-going-to-do-the-cameo superstar actor. But with all the enjoyable, game performances in the movie, the best part remains the Hill-Tatum double-team (and what the fuck is with me and the tennis metaphors today?) — these two guys have a brainy/brash chemistry that for some reason reminds me of Chase & Aykroyd in Spies Like Us.
Maybe that’s a good analogy: Spies Like Us is a comparatively lesser John Landis comedy, but not everything can be Animal House or Trading Places. Most comedies aren’t. Most comedies can’t touch Spies Like Us, let alone Trading Places. For me to invoke any of these movies at all means I’m paying 21 Jump Street a big compliment, but in the end it comes down to this: I laughed plenty.
Go see this movie. If enough people do, we’ll get a sequel, and once you see it, you’ll agree that, unlike most movies that get sequels these days, this movie has a pair of characters you’d actually like to see again.
Just feel free to skip the trailers.
P.S. Couldn’t figure out how to fit this comment in the main review, but seriously, the end credits of 21 JUMP STREET are fucking amazing. I don’t know who to compliment — Lord & Miller, the editorial department, Michael Bacall who clearly is a fellow admirer of the gang at Cinefamily — but really, what a great last blast of energy and absurdity you get hit with, just as you’re getting up to leave. There’s no Academy Award for Best Opening Or Closing Credits, but that only bolsters my suspicion that the Academy Awards aren’t run by anyone who knows half as much about cinema as whoever put the closing credits sequence of 21 Jump Street.
Follow me on Twitter: @jonnyabomb