21 Jump Street (2012) / Comedy-Action
MPAA Rated: R for crude and sexual content, pervasive language, drug material, teen drinking and some violence
Running Time: 109 min.
Cast: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Brie Larson, Dave Franco, Ice Cube, Rob Riggle, Chris Parnell, DeRay Davis, Dax Flame, Ellie Kemper, Jake Johnson
Small roles and cameos: Nick Offerman, Holly Robinson Peete, Peter DeLuise, Johnny Depp
Director: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller
Screenplay: Michael Bacall
Review published June 4, 2014
The thought of yet another classic TV show being remade as a modern-day spoof doesn't exactly fill a savvy moviegoer with delight, as most have been misfires that missed the mark by making little sense to newbies, while being so far from the source material that the show's fans are annoyed at the missed opportunity. 21 Jump Street provides one of the rare exceptions, thanks in large part to the comedic prowess of directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The LEGO Movie), as well as their very game cast, and a crackerjack (if potty-mouthed) script by Michael Bacall (Project X, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) that allows plenty of room for some funny ad-libbing by its capable cast. Toss in a few choice cameos for original series fans, and it all comes together in a very satisfying way for all lovers of R-rated action-comedies.
Executive producers Jonah Hill (How to Train Your Dragon, The Invention of Lying) and Channing Tatum (Haywire, The Eagle) star as cops Morton Schmidt and Greg Jenko, the nerd and jock who find themselves back in high school together when they are pegged to become undercover narcotics officers for a program called 21 Jump Street (the address where their base of operations resides). While in school, the two cops, pretending to be brothers Brad and Doug McQuaid (a nod to the TV show aliases), find their roles reversed in a number of ways, including their own identities and classes, as well as in social status, as the nerds are now the cool ones while the jocks are on the outs. It doesn't take them long before they meet Eric (Franco, Fright Night), a drug dealer in the school they must cozy up to in order to find out who is supplying him with the highly-potent synthetic product that has resulted in at least one death.
The original show, which ran on FOX-TV from 1987 to 1991 and catapulted Johnny Depp to stardom, was not a comedy, so liking this 2012 update is not a question of how faithful it is; it's definitely not. However, there is enough homage, done in some very clever ways, to the TV counterpart to please the hardcore fans. It's a self-aware brand of humor, knowing that it is, at heart, a dumb genre pic, but in that, Lord and Miller find a way to explore new wrinkles. In one key car chase, there is much fun to be had in seeing events play out that would typically result in a massive explosion, only to be denied time and again -- until there is an inappropriate time. It's a film that is constantly poking fun at its own derivativeness in a way that makes it fun.
Jonah Hill, who lost approximately 40 lbs. to play the action-oriented role, provides the bulk of the comedy, but Channing Tatum truly surprises by holding his own in a performance that shows his best talent may not be in action, romances or dancing movies, but in physical comedy -- he is very good here, and very much in his element. He looks too old for the part, but the film makes good use of his overly mature presence in its gags - again tempering its flaws by playfully winking to the audience. They're surrounded by a colorful and energetic cast of actors, some comedians and some who just specialize in playing character roles, but they all chip in to contribute their share of jocularity. Ice Cube (Are We Done Yet?, xXx: State of the Union) in particular riffs on the "angry black police captain" persona that cop shows and flicks are chock full of, and it ends up being perhaps his best comedic performance to date.
With lots of energy and a contagiously raucous attitude, 21 Jump Street emerges as one of the funniest films of 2012, and one of the biggest surprises. If you have a chance to see it, don't hesitate to jump down on Jump Street.
-- Followed by 22 Jump Street (2014)
©2014 Vince Leo