Review: 21 Jump Street
The 80s television series 21 Jump Street, featuring budding star Johnny Depp, played its premise straight. A bunch of young-looking cops infiltrate a high school looking to bust drug rings, and they fight their uncomfortable teenage pasts as well. Played serious, it comes off rather silly, especially from today’s vantage point, and so it seems a natural angle of approach to take the concept and twist it into the comedy it appears so ready to be. Enter co-directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord along with their game stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, who have fashioned a comedy reboot that defies preconceptions about both reboots and the vast majority of modern comedies: the movie is freakin’ hilarious.
The premise remains the same: two mid-20s cops pose as high school students and seek to take down a drug ring. But the perspective is quite different, which makes for some of the best comedy of the past few years. This isn’t a spoof in the mold of The Brady Bunch Movie or Starksy and Hutch, goofball retreads that mocked their source material from beginning to end. 21 Jump Street takes on its origins with some degree of respect and derives its most effective humor from ever-widening and ever-more frequent generation gaps. In a world moving this fast, a five-year difference between people can render communication and cultural relatability very difficult, and that odd fact has never to my mind been better mined for laughs.
One of the film’s best scenes comes when our two cops-turned-undercover-high-schoolers show up for their first day back at school. Their arrival has been pre-planned with the precision of a police raid. Channing Tatum, with a meathead charm and comic timing that is rather unexpected, plays a character who was cool in high school, and thus makes sure he and his geeky partner Jonah Hill drive a big gas-guzzling muscle car, avoid caring too much about anything, and (most importantly) wear their backpacks with only one strap over a single shoulder. You never two-strap it.
When they pull up, the school might as well be in another country. They see cliques they didn’t even know existed (Jocks, Goths, and…I don’t even know what those guys are), find students scoffing at the wastefulness of their hot rod, and discover that the cool kids are socially-conscious drama nerds that abhor bullying and cynicism. And everybody is two-strapping.
“This is all because of that Glee show!” surmises Tatum.
That and so much more, though as he and his partner learn, now all change is bad.
It’s this stream of social disconnect and change anxiety that fuels that film’s momentum, which admittedly lags some in the second half as the action plot kicks into gear. If you are completely unable to prepare for a place you were just seven years ago, how can you hope to adapt to whatever’s coming around the corner? The two leads, each very funny with excellent onscreen chemistry, find that nervous fear and use it both to make us laugh and to give their characters’ situations some humanistic heft. Crass humor and ludicrous violence put icing on the comedy cake, but the core of 21 Jump Street’s success is finding the hilarity in the chaos of a rapidly changing society where it only a takes a few years to become outdated.