March 14, 2012

21 Jump Street

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



21 Jump Street

COMEDY/ACTION:

United States, 2012

U.S. Release Date:

2012-03-16

Running Length:

1:49

MPAA Classification:

R (Profanity, Sexual Content, Violence, Drugs)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

2.35:1

Cast:

Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Brie Larson, Dave Franco, Rob Riggle, DeRay Davis, Ice Cube

Director:

Phil Lord, Chris Miller

Screenplay:

Michael Bacall, based on a story by Michael Bacall & Jonah Hill

Cinematography:

Barry Peterson

Music:

Mark Mothersbaugh

U.S. Distributor:

Columbia Pictures

Subtitles:

none


The television series 21 Jump Street, like many old shows, is a product of its time. Trying to accomplish a "straight" remake of something so irrevocably tied to the '80s could not be done in 2012; it wouldn't work. When Michael Mann reworked Miami Vice, he discarded much of what made it "hip" during its TV run and concentrated on the raw premise. That's one way to do it. Another way is go about things the way Todd Phillips did with Starsky & Hutch: transform it into a comedy/parody. With 21 Jump Street, a series one would not assume deserved a big-screen resurrection, the filmmakers have opted with the latter approach. From start to finish, little that happens during the course of this production is intended to be taken seriously.

21 Jump Street sends up action movies. It sends up cop movies. It sends up high school movies. It sends up motion picture conventions. Sometimes, it's clever. Sometimes, it's crude. And sometimes it falls into the trap of creating unfunny-just-for-Jonah Hill set pieces. The biggest sin is that it's too long. At 90 minutes, this might have been breezy and enjoyable. At 109 minutes, it drags. 21 Jump Street needs a ninth-inning cameo to keep the audience's attention. Still, all things considered, the film is funnier than one might expect. The people behind the camera - directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (who previously collaborated on Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) and scribes Hill and Michael Bacall - put some effort into transforming 21 Jump Street into something that might appeal to a current audience. This production does not rely solely upon nostalgia to get bodies into theater seats.

It starts out as a mismatched buddy movie. Schmidt (Jonah Hill) is the socially inept nerd. He may be a virgin and he's certainly awkward around women. His best friend is Jenko (Channing Tatum), an easygoing, handsome, dumb guy who has no problems with the opposite sex. He and Schmidt bond while working their way through the police academy, then become partners thereafter. When it becomes apparent they are not cut out for conventional cop work, they are reassigned to the Jump Street Squad, headed by the angry Captain Dickson (Ice Cube). Because they (supposedly) look younger than they are, they are ideal candidates to return to high school, infiltrate the student body, and locate the supplier of a new designer drug. In a reversal of roles, Schmidt ends up hooking up with the cool kids while Jenko falls in with the geeks. Still, Schmidt's unease with women is not cured by his new "popular" status, as is proven when he interacts with Molly (Brie Larson), his co-star in a school play. But he makes contact with the local pusher, Eric (Dave Franco), while Jenko tries to determine whether anyone might be using the chemistry lab to synthesize the drug.

21 Jump Street contains a few "action scenes" with a tongue-in-cheek approach that keeps them from becoming too tedious. The movie is ruthless in lampooning the tendency of things to blow up during car chases. This becomes a running gag with an amusing (if predictable) payoff. The script also makes repeated references to the practice of having older actors play teenagers in high school movies. Tatum is 31 pretending to be 19, but at one point he's referred to as "looking like a 40-year-old guy." None of the main actors are under 20, with Dave Franco (the younger brother of James) clocking in at 26 and Brie Larson the baby of the group at 21.

Some of the funniest scenes belong to Ice Cube's "angry black captain" who goes on profane rants that would make Samuel L. Jackson proud. If there's a problem with this character, however, it's that we expect an ironic twist that never materializes. The movie earns its R-rating by packing the script with f-bombs that add little to the proceedings. For the most part, this is a PG-13 movie masquerading as something more edgy. In fact, the use of profanity makes 21 Jump Street seem more juvenile than adult.

The chemistry between the leads is fitful but evident. That's a key element in even a movie as silly and lightweight as this one. Jonah Hill, after having pushed the envelope and shown some acting ability in Moneyball, has fallen back into his typecast role as the socially awkward outsider. Channing Tatum is charming and appealing, but I'm still trying to figure out whether he can act. The two are okay together, but no one is going to mistake them for Felix and Oscar or Rick and Louis. They fit the mood of 21 Jump Street, which is that of a fitfully entertaining but throwaway re-invention of a hopelessly outdated TV show. Yes, there are laughs to be had here, but I wonder whether it might be more amusing to watch episodes of the old TV show. Cutting edge drama from 1987 might look like high comedy in 2012.

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