21 Jump Street

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/15/12 16:06:32

"What's The Matter With Kids These Days?"
3 stars (Just Average)

Even though I was part of its key demographic (at least from an age perspective) when it first aired on television as one of the first hits of the then-fledgling Fox network, I must confess at this point to have somehow managed to go through my entire life without ever watching a single episode of "21 Jump Street," the long-running series about a bunch of hip young cops going undercover as high school students in order to break up drug rings or gangs or what have you. (The show was able to maintain this illusion for year because the cops and students all looked as though they were at least 25.) What can I say--if I was going to watch a cop show back then, it was going to be "Miami Vice" or the even-more-glorious "Crime Story" and besides, I was sufficiently versed in the annals of television history to recognize a ham-handed retread of "The Mod Squad" when I saw it and as pretty as breakout star Johnny Depp may have been, he was no Peggy Lipton. (Full disclosure--I may have watched an episode of "Booker," the short-lived spin-off for supporting pretty boy Richard Greico, but I suspect that may have been either to win a bet or the result of losing one.) Therefore, going into the long-gestating big-screen edition of the show, which has been transmogrified from its putatively serious origins into a raucous high-octane action-comedy that will remind viewers of, depending on their ages, anything from "Freebie and the Bean" to "Pineapple Express," I cannot even begin to speculate on how it might play for those now-aging viewers who were fans of it back in the day or the younger ones who have picked up on it because of the presence of Depp and, to a lesser extent, Peter DeLuise. All I can is examine it solely on its own terms as a contemporary buddy cop movie peppered with explosions aplenty and on that level, it is not much of a success--though to be fair, it does contain several moments that do not seem to realize this and provide some unexpectedly big laughs at the oddest moments.

The film opens with a flashback to the long-ago era of 2005 as high school nerd Schmidt (Jonah Hill) tries to pass himself off as one of the cool kids--complete with a wildly ineffective Eminem makeover--but only finds himself the butt of jokes by the popular crowd, especially from dopey hunk Jenko (Channing Tatum). Cut to the present day and both find themselves going through the rigors of the police academy and unexpectedly wind up bonding--Jenko helps Schmidt pass the physical trials while Schmidt reciprocates by helping Jenko bone up for tests. After graduating, the two are partnered up for bike patrol but when their first bust goes wrong--in all the excitement, they forget to read the suspect his Miranda rights. Instead of busting them off the force, their superior (the awesome Nick Offerman in what is essentially little more than a cameo--most of which you have already seen in the trailer) reassigns him to a long-forgotten crime-fighting program from the 1980's that the department has decided to revive. Working out of an abandoned storefront church under the guidance of the perpetually livid Captan Dickson (Ice Cube), they will be going undercover as students at crime-ridden local high schools to get the skinny on drug dealers, gang-bangers and, more likely, kids daring to illegally download Taylor Swift songs. Oh yeah, there are the usual rules about fraternizing with students or teachers (you know what I mean), supplying kids with drugs or alcohol and all the other things that they are assured will get them immediately bounced from the force and which you are assured they will in fact do at some point because they are all part of the trailer.

Moving in with Schmidt's parents and posing as brothers (which doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense even by the standards of this kind of filmmaking), Schmidt and Jenko's first assignment is to infiltrate the sprawling local high school complex in order to get to the bottom of a drug ring responsible for a deadly new designer drug before it can escape campus containment and flood the area. Alas, from the moment they arrive, the two discover that high school has changed a lot since their day--the nerds are cool, bullies are frowned upon and even main dealer Eric (Dave Franco, younger brother of James) is an otherwise gregarious do-gooder who is concerned about getting into a good college and helping the environment. Surprisingly, it is former schnook Schmidt who blossoms this time around by getting in with the in crowd and even attracting the attentions of Molly (Brie Larson), a comely theater chick who doesn't use drugs (no doubt biding her time for her eventual dark night of the soul/Act 3 plot development) but nevertheless hangs out with Eric and his pals knowing full well about their clandestine activities. As for Jenko, he winds up finding himself out of the cool circle for the first time in his life and uses his unexpected ostracizing to befriending his fellow outcasts and improve his deductive game to boot. I would never dream of revealing the details of how it all ends up but considering how the majority of films these days--at least the ones that aren't homages to the early days of cinema--tend to end with either a chase and a shootout or at prom, I suppose credit should be given to this one for devising a story that utilizes both in its final reels.

Although nowhere near as dreadful as the trailers that have been running before virtually ever film in the last six months not featuring the Muppets, "21 Jump Street" is still a scattershot moviegoing experience that contains long stretches in which nothing much of interest or amusement occurs that are occasionally punctuated by big laughs. The screenplay by Michael Bacall, whose name has also appeared on the writing credits for such intolerable gumdrops as "Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World" and the current hit "Project X," seems to be constantly waffling between wanting to be a spoof of the old TV show or a straightforward action comedy and winds up mixing the two approaches in ways that never quite pay off and, as with "Project X," the wild escalation of the material from the reasonably believable to the utterly outlandish feels forced. Even more maddening, he actually comes up with one decent and interesting idea--the notion of the former geek suddenly being embraced by the cool kids for those attributes while the former BMOC is shunned for his--but then never really bothers to deal with it. (To be fair, it feels as if a lot of material wound up on the cutting-room floor--I think Ellie Kemper, who plays Jenko's flighty/flirty science teacher is in the commercials longer than she is in the final film.) Co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller are making their live-action debut here after getting their start as the makers of the animated hit "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" and while they manage to keep things moving along at a decent pace, much of the film is a little too ridiculously over-scaled for its own good at times without the compensating factor of being funny as well.

Another thing that kind of bothered me, strangely enough, is the level of violence on display here. You know me--I am hardly one to shy away from the red stuff and I have no problem with seeing it deployed in a comedic context. Take "Pineapple Express," for example--that film had a lot of blood and gunfire and bits of assorted brutality in them but they were never so graphic or extended that they threatened to overwhelm the proceedings. In "21 Jump Street," there are some moments when the comedy and violence mesh perfectly--I love the bit where Schmidt triumphs in a fight during a wild party and only afterwards is it discovered that not only was he stabbed during the fracas but that the rather large knife is still in the back. However, in the final reels, the film amps up the bloodshed significantly and it just struck me as a bit of a violation to see such grisly material in something that is meant to be a comedy. Some might argue that the ridiculous amount of gore is itself meant to to be part of the joke. I am cheerfully willing to agree with that perspective but I have a question in return. Towards the end of the film, the chief villain is shot at close range and a not-insignificant portion of that person's anatomy is separated from their body. Again, I will concede that the shooting itself could be considered to be funny to some people. However, did we really need the close-up shot of that body part lying on the sidewalk and did we really need to bear witness to what happens to it afterwards?

Because of its general unevenness and my antipathy towards the bloodshed, I cannot really recommend "21 Jump Street," even though it is admittedly a better film than it probably has any right to be. And yet, I am even conflicted about doing that because even though it is kind of a fail in total, it does have a number of very funny thing in it here and there. For starters, Channing Tatum, stepping outside of his cinematic comfort zone, is pretty amusing throughout and once again suggests that he may be better off in the long run if he follows the lead of Johnny Depp and drift towards the freakier material instead of wasting time in bland teen dream roles. Every once in a while, there is a bit of business or a line of dialogue that floats out of nowhere and just kind of blindsides you with its cheerful silliness. Hell, the film even boasts what I believe may be the most unexpectedly hilarious cameo appearance from a big-name star since Bill Murray juiced up "Zombieland" with his now-legendary stagger-on role. (Granted, you may be able to guess who the star is but where they turn up will probably come as a surprise as long as no one spoils it by blabbing or mentioning it in their "Hollywood Reporter" review.) Of course, the funniest joke in the movie is the fact that no one involved with its production apparently realized that the whole Miranda warning thing doesn't work quite the way that they think they do and while they did forget to read the perp his rights, that would only make anything he said after being arrested inadmissible but I don't think it would have affected the case in regards to his possessing drugs and evading arrest. Oh well, maybe they are saving that for the sequel.

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