It takes a whole lot for a comedy to leave me in physical pain from laughing too hard. I really can’t remember the last time it really happened, but congratulations are in order for the makers of the action comedy 21 Jump Street. Based on the laughably implausible and cheesy late 1980s Fox television drama, the film fires perfectly on all cylinders to create an experience that will appeal wonderfully to fans of Hot Fuzz and the Bad Boys films. I’d deem it a guilty pleasure if I didn’t love those movies so darn much, so I guess I just have to call it one of the strongest all around films of the year thus far.
Following a botched drug bust, former schoolmates and current partners on the police force Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (Jonah Hill) are assigned to the newly revived Jump Street program. The fringe operation of the police force takes the youngest looking officers and assigns them to local high schools to stop crime amongst youngsters.
Jenko and Schmidt are assigned to a high school where a band of eco-conscious and astoundingly tolerant cool kids have been dealing a new mind altering drug called HFS out of the yearbook offices. After mixing up their assigned undercover identities on the first day of school, the vastly smarter Schmidt is assigned to blow off classes and track meets to get closer to the cool kids, while Jenko is tasked with infiltrating the AP Chemistry class to find out who’s cooking the drugs and how.
What could have very easily turned into “Superbad with guns” or a meta-commentary on nostalgic television actually stands firmly on its own merits. A huge amount of credit has to go to the talent behind the camera on this one. First time live action feature directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, TV’s beloved Clone High) and writer Michael Bacall (co-writer of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, working from a story co-written by Hill) bring an earnest degree of silliness to the proceedings. Not once does the film work very hard to make the audience buy into the ludicrous premise, but it allows the audience ample opportunity to simply have a fun time.
Lord and Miller have a great eye for visual gags thanks to their animation backgrounds, and they adeptly work them into some increasingly complex action sequences as the film goes on. People don’t just get shot. They get shot in comedically horrifying ways. Things don’t always blow up the way they should. And sometimes, just to walk into a room, you need a box full of doves to make your presence known. At times it borders dangerously on parody, but the filmmakers and writing team have done a great job of balancing the real and the surreal. It feels realistic as a teen film and a buddy cop parody without ever talking down to either audience.
Hill and Tatum also assist by being the most formidable comedic cop duo since Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Hill gets the less showy role, despite being the romantic lead in a purposefully uncomfortable side plot involving the pesudo-girlfriend (Brie Larson) of the school’s smarmy drug kingpin (Dave Franco, a dead ringer for his brother James in both the looks and acting department). It’s fun to watch Hill play the straight man since Tatum seems to be having a gleeful time being as unhinged as possible as the former jock getting in touch with his inner nerd and loving every second of it. The supporting cast also comes more than ready to play, especially Rob Riggle (going 2 for 2 in the month of March with this and The Lorax) as the school’s track coach and Ice Cube as the angry head of the Jump Street operation.
Towards the end as the action begins to take centre stage more and more, the film settles into a predictable groove without ever flying off the rails. It might also be a bit overlong at nearly two hours, but there are also parts where it feels like something good might have been left on the cutting room floor. Normally these would be complaints, but considering that nearly every buddy cop film clocks in at over two hours with a bunch of stuff feeling left out, it almost works in the film’s favour. Even the film’s flaws add to a package that does exactly what it says on the label.
I’ll admit that there’s really no way to wax philosophical about the merits of 21 Jump Street, but there’s also no need to. Fans of buddy cop comedies who generally wait several years for the next great film in the canon to come along can stop looking. It embraces its own shortcomings and stereotypical characters with gusto and affection. It’s made by people who love the genre and for people who love the genre. If I were a lesser critic I’d say something sensational about it. Something like: “The makers of 21 Jump Street should be arrested because they’re absolutely killing it!” But this movie doesn’t need a blurb to succeed. The audience will find it and probably fall in love with it immediately.
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