21 Jump Street

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 03/16/12 02:33:55

"The next great action-comedy dynamic duo? Apparently so."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

If a random stranger (as opposed to a non-random stranger) stopped you in the middle of a crosswalk and told you that "21 Jump Street," the late '80s TV series that brought Johnny Depp to millions of viewers every week, was making its way to a big-screen multiplex near you, but not as a straight action-drama, but as an action-comedy co-written and starring Jonah 'Superbad' Hill, non-comedian/dramatic actor Channing Tatum, and directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the duo who wrote and directed "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs," you'd be well within your rights (and wits) to expect nothing less than and, perhaps, nothing more, than yet another example of a creatively bankrupt Hollywood studio desperately exploiting a vaguely remembered brand, all in the hopes of cashing in. But if the preceding sentence encapsulated your thoughts and fears, you'd be wrong (not dead wrong, just wrong).

When we first meet Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum), they’re in the last days of their last year in high school. Schmidt, a wannabe Slim Shady, strikes out with the girl of his (wet) dreams. Jenko strikes out academically. Neither makes it to the prom, leaving a huge hole in their individual and collective experiences that the big-screen reimagining is certain to fill in the last half hour. Several years later, they run into each other at the police academy. Wary at first, they become friends out of necessity. Schmidt helps Jenko out with the course work and Jenko helps out Schmidt with physical training. Both graduate, but don’t quite get their hearts’ desire. They’re assigned to duty as bike cops. After a drug bust goes hilariously sideways, their superior officer, Deputy Chief Hardy (Nick Offer man), reassigns them to the “21 Jump Street” undercover operation.

There, Schmidt and Jenko cross paths with other soon-to-be-undercover-cops and their new superior officer, Captain Dickson (Ice Cube, perpetually constipated). A new drug, “H.F.S.” (“Holy F---ing Sh-t”), has led to the death of a high-school student and Dickson wants Schmidt and Jenko to go undercover at his high school, infiltrate the drug dealing operation, and identify the supplier. While Jenko’s excited about reliving his glory days (like many jocks, he peaked in high school), Schmidt’s not. He was a bottom dweller, an outcast. 21 Jump Street’s first stroke of near-genius happens the moment Schmidt and Jenko drive into the high school parking lot: Social castes have totally flipped. Smart, geeky kids are cool and jocks are…well, still jocks. Tolerance and environmentalism are in, and intolerance and selfishness are out (more or less). Jenko’s attempt to impress his fellow students goes awry when he inadvertently punches a gay student.

More hilarity results from yet another role reversal. Jenko’s inability to remember his cover name forces him to take AP Chemistry, a subject for which ignorance truly isn’t bliss. Schmidt ends up in acting class and gets improbably recruited into the track team by an over-zealous coach, Mr. Walters (Rob Riggle). Schmidt meets the new girl of his (wet) dreams, Molly Tracey (Brie Larson), who just happens to be street legal, and her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Eric Molson (Dave Franco), who may or may not be the lead they need to find the source of H.F.S.

To say more would be to spoil the many comic pleasures 21 Jump Street packs into its 104-minute running time, but playing out going back to high school not as a never-ending nightmare, but as pure wish-fulfillment fantasy, gives 21 Jump Street all the impetus it needs to keep the mix of jokes and gags flowing evenly. A major set piece involving a problem all undercover cops inevitably face (at least on film and in television) proves to be one peak among many (valleys are few and far between). Orchestrated with an eye toward greater levels of anarchic absurdity by first-time live-action directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs), the scene in question must be seen to be disbelieved for its inventiveness and for Hill and Tatum’s willingness to go as far as the material and Lord and Miller will take them (and maybe even beyond).

Over the last five years, we’ve learned to expect expert comic timing from Jonah Hill (from "Superbad' to "Moneyball" last year), but the same couldn’t (and can’t) be said for Channing Tatum. For better or for worse (often, if not exclusively, the latter), Tatum’s made a name for himself through dramatic roles, including last month’s "The Vow." What moviegoers didn’t know, however, was Tatum’s talent or skill (or lack thereof) on the other side of the drama/comedy ledger. If "21 Jump Street" is any indication, and it most likely is, Tatum can, indeed, handle comedy, especially when he’s working with a strong comedic presence like Hill. Together, they have that all-important, difficult-to-define, chemistry, playing off each other’s personas and characters, but they also take it beyond that, giving their respective characters emotionally vulnerable inner lives (yes, that read that), making "21 Jump Street" more than just a pleasant, unexpected surprise this weekend and next. It may just be an action-comedy to revisit and revisit, at least until the expected sequel hits next year or, more likely, the year after.

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