Street Smart, by Kyle Anderson
The new film 21 Jump Street is dumb. The 80’s TV series upon which it is based was also dumb. The difference, of course, is that one set of makers was trying to make a dumb thing. This is not the first comedy movie based on an old TV show by a long shot but this may be the first one to comment both on the silliness of the show itself and the very nature of doing a movie spoofing it. Directed by Chris Miller and Phil Lord, the pair behind 2009’s surprisingly funny animated film Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Jump Street employs the same humor and movie knowledge but with heaps more swearing. It’s one of the most meta films I’ve seen in who knows how long, maybe since Scott Pilgrim vs the World. Fitting that they share the same screenwriter, Michael Bacall. 21 Jump Street is not nearly as good a film as Scott Pilgrim, but even as I sat in the theater thinking to myself how dumb it was, I couldn’t help but laugh a few times. It’s funny.
The film begins in 2005 with high school loser Schmidt (executive producer/co-writer Jonah Hill) being taunted mercilessly by high school stud Jenko (executive producer Channing Tatum). For different reasons, neither gets to go to their senior prom. This is important for later. Cut to seven years later with both starting at the police academy. Jenko is amazing at the physical tasks and Schmidt is amazing at the written tasks so they put their high school differences aside and help each other. After their first assignment goes belly up, they are reassigned to a newly revived 80’s undercover outfit for young-looking cops in an old Korean Christian church which has the convenient address of 21 Jump St. There their habitually angry captain (Ice Cube) assigns them to stop a dangerous drug ring in a local high school. They soon discover high school now is far different than they remember with Schmidt immediately becoming popular and Jenko forced to hang out with the nerdy outcasts. Will they get to solve the case before they’re pulled in too deep?
The first thing that must be said is that all the actors in the movie do a really great job. Hill is consistently likable as the adult nerd who gets to live out his high school dreams. Tatum, who in dramatic roles is about as interesting as a Ken doll, is quite hilarious as the dumb jock who’s badass if you give him a gun. The joke of course is that in any other teen movie, or indeed during the old 21 Jump Street show, Tatum’s character would be the coolest person at school; however due to the new age hipstery world of today, he’s not. His scenes with the school’s chemistry geeks are among the funniest in the film. Ice Cube, whose acting chops are debatable, is hysterical as the police captain who yells most of his lines, the way stereotypical movie police captains do. Among the other standouts are Ellie Kemper as the chemistry teacher who doesn’t do a very good job of hiding her attraction to Tatum and Rob Riggle as the Phys Ed teacher who cheerfully hates everyone. Brie Larson and Dave Franco are also good as Hill’s new friends.
I did not expect to laugh very much at the movie but I did. I think I was mostly expecting it to be like every other stupid movie made out of an old TV show, however this is one step removed. Just as Michael Bacall and Edgar Wright had done with Scott Pilgrim, Bacall and Hill fill the story with references to the source material, the medium of the source material, the fact that they’re in a movie and the movie they’re in. Layers upon layers of in-jokes. A lengthy car chase sequence comes to mind where they have to keep changing cars because the traffic on the highway is backed up and then, during the shootout portion of it, things the characters expect to explode do not, whereas things they do not expect to blow up do. There are also cameos from a number of original series cast members, all playing the same characters, which I will certainly not be spoiling here as they’re pretty damn great.
The movie takes a bit too long to get going with a little more setup than is probably necessary. There’s also a slight issue with the tone of the film. For a lot of the movie, it’s just a comedy and only minimally a cop movie and so by the end when it becomes a full on action film, it does come as a bit of a shock. However, the jokes keep coming and while the third act is pretty much paint-by-numbers, it is a pretty satisfying ending for the type of movie it is. This movie has been a passion project for Hill for a number of years and he really does get to shine in it. It’s the kind of funny dumb movie they don’t make these days. Hill, Tatum, Bacall, Lord and Miller all know the kind of film they’ve made and have a great time doing it. But make no mistake, as funny as 21 Jump Street is and as much fun as I had watching it, it’s still dumb as shit. Go see it.