Movie Review: 21 Jump Street (2012)

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When Easy A was released last year, it ushered in a brief era of John Hughes nostalgia and the feeling that things within the high school comedy genre could, in fact, get better. A year of repeat viewings and Emma Stone Tumblr .gifs later, and the shine of Will Gluck’s comedy has mostly diminished. It’s a ramshackle tribute to a bygone era in teen filmmaking, its obsolescence made clear by a lack of Hollywood follow-through  It’s much easier to throw a handful of Disney Channel stars into a foreign country or move the cheerleader movie plot into another sport than to hit the sweet spot Easy A was lucky enough to find. No matter. For all that film’s charm and quirk, I was left waiting to see if the high school comedy’s raunchier parasitic twin would crawl its way out of the ditch a legion of Superbad imitators left it dying in. Finally, with 21 Jump Street, it has.

It’s as odd a candidate as any. A remake of an 80s television program granted enduring cult popularity due to the later fame of one of its stars, featuring a pair of 30-year-old men impersonating high school students doesn’t immediately figure as a good time. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller have been here before, though, eviscerating high school culture with their MTV cartoon Clone High, and are smart enough to realize that pop culture and mass media have muddied old tropes and expectations. Nerds, geeks, and environmental activists are portrayed as hip, now. Gays and lesbians are accepted by their peers. While real life rarely bears this out, this is the entertainment industry’s standard operating procedure when making mainstream high school movies. Quirky girl meets sensitive guy, is guided towards relationship by gay best friend. Rinse, wash, repeat. It’s within that formula that 21 Jump Street scores its biggest points. The fish are large and the barrel is small, but Lord and Miller are the first to take aim and fire.

Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum) are two police academy graduates who’ve long dreamed of the exciting life cops lead. Formerly the high school nerd and jock, respectively, Schmidt and Jenko find each other in class struggling through the areas of their expertise. Jenko helps Schmidt with the rigorous physical activities required of men on the beat, and Jenko helps Schmidt prepare for the exam. They graduate as partners, but police work is hardly the fantasia of explosions, guns, and high-speed chases they imagined. Patrolling the park on their bicycles, they deal with lost Frisbees and rowdy kids. When they luck into a bust of a drug-dealing motorcycle club, they botch things royally and find themselves hustled down to a relaunched undercover program headquartered on 21 Jump Street.

Though it’s intoned that the Jump Street program is a last resort for young-looking cops this close to handing in their guns and badges, those working the beat seem experts at breaking up high school drug rings. Jenko and Schmidt are assigned to one such task at a school where a new drug is on the verge of going viral, spreading uncontrollable giggles and potential overdoses across the city. Schmidt, the most popular person of his graduating class, is beyond elated for this second chance to relive his peak years. Jenko, who survived his four years at school as an obese Eminem-lookalike, is less than stoked. But it’s 2012, and everything is different. Because of a mix-up with their files, Morton ends up in the less-challenging classes intended for his partner, while Greg ends up taking AP chemistry. Somehow, they fall in with those crowds. Morton becomes one of the most popular guys in high school while Greg falls in with the calculator-and-pocket-protector brigade, still rendered invisible. Morton even ends up skirting an affair with Molly (Brie Larson), the most popular girl in school.

21 Jump Street never really comments on the creepiness of Jonah Hill’s character having an obvious, hopeless crush on someone half his age, but it has a lot of fun showing him and Tatum so obviously out of their respective elements. Of course, the seedy underbelly of the popular nerd crowd is that they’re the ones dealing drugs, so Morton is caught trying to remain popular with them while figuring out who their supplier is. And Tatum, high on the new drug and blowing through a pop-culture-addled science equation involving unobtanium and radioactive spiders, is appropriately awkward as an obviously too-old-for-high-school man way out of his league. In these situations, 21 Jump Street is often funny enough that it doesn’t matter that both men are being fed bulk amounts of Valuable Life Lessons.

Where the movie falters is in the police procedural stuff that exists at the film’s fringes. The drug kingpin is an underwhelming reveal, and beyond a sequence where flammable objects refuse to blow up, action movie parody has been done better elsewhere. Ice Cube’s turn as a deliberate, knowing black police captain stereotype is the film’s most tired joke. Cube has enough charisma to make it work once, but even then, it’s redundant: Parks and Recreation‘s Nick Offerman, in a cameo as Jenko and Schmidt’s initial supervising officer, is so note-perfect in drolly observing the ridiculousness of rebooting a mostly forgotten program from the 1980s because the department has “completely run out of ideas” that any further comment from the duo’s supervisors feels like overkill. Going to college with Ice Cube hurling angry thunderbolts at his incompetent officers is an exhausting proposition, but then again, so was the idea of a completely frivolous re imagining of a cult TV show.

21 Jump Street.  With Jonah Hill (Schmidt), Channing Tatum (Jenko), Brie Larson (Molly), Rob Riggle (Mr. Walters), Ice Cube (Capt. Dickson), Chris Parnell (Mr. Gordon), Ellie Kemper (Ms. Griggs), Nick Offerman (Capt. Hardy), Peter DeLuise (Doug Penhall), and Johnny Depp (Tom Hanson). Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller from a screenplay by Michael Bacall, based on the television series 21 Jump Street, created by Patrick Hasburg and Stephen J. Cannell.