Review: 21 Jump Street (2012)

Directors: Phil Lord, Chris Miller

***

Who in their right mind would want to go back to their teenage years, and the misery of those school days? As 21 Jump Street makes quite clear, it’d be a painful experience for anyone, be they nerd or jock. Schmidt (Jonah Hill) was the fat Eminem-lookalike nerd, whilst Jenko (Channing Tatum) was the long-haired jock. The latter ruled the roost in 2005, but the two befriend each other in police academy. The parameters of the buddy comedy are put in place as their young looks and idiotic behavior lands them in undercover operations in a high school. The problem is that sensitivity is in, the use of the term ‘gay’ as a general pejorative is out, and jocks and nerds roam side by side in the locker’d hallways. These guys aren’t in Kansas anymore.

The original 21 Jump Street TV show was kitschy fun, and it’s this spirit of fun that the movie adaptation tries to capture. For the most part, thankfully, it succeeds. A drug nicknamed ‘Holy Shit’ is doing the rounds in a high school, and Schmidt and Jenko are charged with uprooting the supplier before it spreads to other schools. It’s a perfunctory set-up to get these guys out of their depth and into some ridiculous situations. For one, Jenko’s math teacher (Ellie Kemper) is getting all hot and bothered by her new students surprisingly-developed muscles. Meanwhile, Schmidt’s trying to blag the lead in the school production of ‘Peter Pan’. The only reason this happens is so we can see Hill in a ridiculous Peter Pan costume and, when it happens, it is glorious. Meanwhile, they’re trying to get the druggies (led by Dave Franco’s Eric) on side. How best to do that? Throw a party! Cops giving teens booze ain’t clever, but it does bring the funny. Around Jenko and Schmidt are found some brilliant supports, including Ice Cube’s wonderfully foul-mouthed police captain and Rob Riggle’s weirdo chemistry teacher. Whilst 21 Jump Street does poke some fun at the changes in high school cliquery, its humour is mostly quite broad. Still, this doesn’t matter when your two leads are just so utterly clueless that you can’t help but like ‘em. Hill’s shouty-sweary-awkward-face thing is just the opposite of what got him an Oscar nod in Moneyball, but Tatum proves himself the most here. He has been accused of coasting on his looks in the past, but here he proves himself to be in possession of some uncanny comic timing. His chemistry with Hill makes 21 Jump Street more than the dick and shit jokes, frequent as they are, and for the most part it goes along at quite a click with ease and confidence.

Animation directors don’t always make smooth transitions to live action (for example, see
John Carter
. Or don’t.). However, Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs) seem quite comfortable with the practical demands of a real shoot. It’s a pity that the easy-going comedy of the first two-thirds of the film gives way to an OTT final act, as screenwriter Michael Bacall throws guns, cars and explosions into the mix to make sure every box is ticked off for the target audience. A few more yuk-yuks and a few less YUCK!s could have made 21 Jump Street stand out. Still, it’s prime drunken Friday night fodder, demanding only that you submit to its teenaged charm. Be assured, high school has changed a great deal since last you were there.

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