Written by J.T. Johnson
“21 Jump Street” is a movie that probably has many people shaking their heads in disbelief. It is another movie based on a long forgotten television show. What they may not consider is that the movie also ends up being one of the funniest movies released in recent years. Writers Jonah Hill and Michael Bacall somehow made a bad idea work.
First, here is a little history of the source material. “21 Jump Street” was a televised police drama that aired on Fox from 1987 to ’91. It somehow became one of the fledgling channel’s first hits. It also propelled actor Johnny Depp to teen-idol status.
The movie follows the same basic plot of the show and little else. Morton Schmidt (Hill) and Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum) are two terrible police officers. Fortunately for them, they both look just young enough to pass as high school students. Therefore, they are reassigned to a program from the ‘80s that has been reactivated known as the Jump Street program.
They are quickly ordered by an ill-tempered police captain (Ice Cube) to infiltrate a drug ring and stop the spread of a new type of synthetic drug that has already caused one student to O.D. Soon, Schmidt and Jenko are struggling to discover the origin of the drug as well as fighting some old demons from their own high school days.
The thing that truly makes this film work is its complete self-awareness. There are key scenes that let the audience know that the filmmakers are in on the joke. One scene includes a police captain telling the two protagonists that the only reason the program is being restarted is because his men are completely unoriginal and love to rehash old ideas as if nobody will notice.
This is not to say that the film completely makes fun of its source material. Despite the satirical approach to ‘80s police clichés and teen movies, it is also easy to see that the filmmakers have plenty of love for the material. Several small cameos from the former cast of the show are a testament to this fact.
Hill and Tatum have plenty of great comedic talent on display here. For Hill, this is a return to being the genuinely hilarious actor he can be after an Oscar-nominated dramatic take for “Moneyball”. Surprisingly, Tatum also turns in a great performance as Jenko. It looks like the actor has finally found his place and should really consider more comedic fare in the future.
The rest of the cast also does a great job despite the lack of development or really getting to know them. Whether it’s Ice Cube pointing out that he understands he is, in fact, a stereotypically angry police captain or other characters pointing out that Tatum actually does not look like he belongs in high school, the extreme absurdity always seems to work itself out. Hill and Bacall proved successfully that they just wanted the audience to laugh until it hurts.
The only real problem is whether or not the audience is easily offended by crude humor. There is a healthy amount of raunchy comedy to help balance the clever satire and well-crafted improvisation. So, if one is easily offended by foul language, nudity or teenagers using drugs, then he/she needs to stay away from this film.
Ultimately, this is a movie that probably should have fallen completely apart. Somehow, it managed not only to succeed, but it also ends up being one of the biggest surprises so far this year.