21 Jump Street

By Clint Morris

Take away that iconic theme, the church setting, and a couple of visual throwbacks to the original series, and you wouldn’t know Sony’s “21 Jump Street” we’re even based on the TV series of the same name. Tonally and structurally, the film and the series – one of the many prime-time hits produced by the late, great Stephen J.Cannell in the 1980’s – are chalk and cheese.

But you know, maybe that’s what works about ”21 Jump Street” the movie – the fact that it isn’t ‘a remake of a TV show’.

The series was an over melodramatic, slightly preachy action series about a group of young-looking cops – one of whom was played by then rising star Johnny Depp – who are assigned to task of going undercover in highschool as students. By befriending their fellow classmates, sometimes even teachers, the baby-faced bacon were able to spring drug-dealers, help abuse victims, sniff out crime gangs… and so on.

The film features a similar précis, but takes itself far, far, less seriously than the show did.

I guess it has to. The late 80s were a much different time. Just because we Reagan-era kids would able to remain engrossed and easily influenced by a series that was essentially all about Johnny Depp and Michael DeLuise donning ridiculously undersized clothing while helping push messages of all sorts onto the unsuspecting teen viewer (something “Beverly Hills 90210” would perfect a couple of years later), today’s youth are ostensibly more supercilious and harder to please. A serious movie about two undercover cops pretending to be highschool students just wouldn’t work as well today – if even because Drew Barrymore successfully made light of the ‘undercover highschooler’ scenario with 1998’s “Never Been Kissed”. In addition, this is the “American Pie” and Judd Apatow generation, the kids love their smutty, silly comedies… a movie with a logline concerning ‘a couple of undercover cops out to snatch a drug-dealer in highschool’ seems born for a mockery and ultimate shake-up.

Anyway, writers Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill cleverly decided to write “Jump Street” a comedy. But it’s not some pisstake or parody – like the “Brady Bunch” movie or “Dukes of Hazzard” was – no, this is a real-world “Jump Street” film, with believable-enough characters getting into [mostly] believable situations. Though laughs are the emphasis, the film mirrors real life – just like the original show did – by exploring how it’s now ‘nerds’ that are popular in school, not ‘jocks’ as would have been the case in the ’80s. It also emphasizes how much technology has changed since the show, making a policeman’s work somewhat easier. And there’s obvious humour to be had with the revelation that many of today’s young cops have been raised on a diet of Bruce Willis movies, and therefore chase the thrill, more so than the pride of playing community protector.

But again, emphasis is on laughs -and laugh you will. Lots.

Hill and Tatum play former highschool enemies – the former was the chubby loser, the latter the fit jock; of course they clashed! – who reunite as police officers. This time though, they get along – though mostly they’ve bonded because of their equal suckiness as cops.

Being rather hopeless at their jobs – they don’t even remember the Miranda rights – the dimish, juvenile duo are asked to report to an address on “Jump Street” where they’ve been nominated to participate in a program – from the ’80s – that’s just been resurrected.

Upon arriving at a familiar-looking building, Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) are advised – by their gruff captain, played by the smartly-cast Ice Cube – they’ll be going undercover as highschool students at a local institute. Under their new identities of brothers, the duo have to find out who is responsible for a new synthetic drug that’s doing the rounds- one which has already claimed a life.

First day back at school it’s immediately evident to Schmidt and, especially Jenko, that things have changed a lot since they were at school. For starters, good-looking athletes like Jenko aren’t popular anymore; instead, it’s the smart science-geek and drama-club types that have all the friends and followers.

While the nerdy nice-guy Schmidt makes the most of his long-hankered-for popularity, and Jenko struggles with his new title as loser, the quietly confident Eric Molson (Dave Franco) decides to bring the duo in on the drug dealing company he runs from the school basement.

Aside from the “Hot Fuzz” and “Superbad” lattice of tone, there’s also an obvious nod to the classic highschool-set teen comedies of the ’80s – particularly those John Hughes did (Only you’d never have heard the kind of language or seen the amount of nudity in those as you do here) – which is nifty. If there’s such a thing as a movie that looks and feels like it was made in the ’80s, but could only really exist as is today, this is it.

What works about “21 Jump Street” is that, on its own, it’s a legitimately funny and very entertaining movie. And at the same time, it’s also paying homage and mucho respect to the show that inspired it. Writers Bacall and Hill, with directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord (“Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”), are obviously huge fans of the original show and wanted to show it some love – – while not neglecting the next generation’s needs.

Tatum and Hill make for a fun duo, the former seemingly have the time of his life playing up the dumb hottie his succession of histrionic, corny roles have ultimately typecast him as. But there’s also some real effort here from the “G.I Joe” star to impress audiences with his untapped comedic skills. Seems the boy isn’t all ribs and rumba, because he steals quite a few scenes from the more-experienced comic, Hill.

Hill, sporting his new leaner body, is as likeable as ever in his part but the “Superbad” alum is clearly has something to prove too – in this case, that he’s capable of not only some great physical humour but playing an unlikely action movie lead.

Miller and Lord have rounded up a terrific supporting cast for the film too – with everyone from Dave Franco (my god he looks like his brother!), Brie Larson (she plays Hill’s love interest), Rob Riggle, Ice Cube and Dax Flame excitedly giving their best.

But despite the great cast, the terrific music (Cube’s Straight Outta Compton is a welcome highlight), and the well choreographed action sequences, it’s Bacall and Hill’s script that’s the star here. The duo haven’t simply written a good comedy, full of genuinely well penned gags and characters, but also a movie that successful satisfies the needs of both the contemporary teenager and those who penciled “Tommy Hanson Forever” into their wooden school desks back in 1988.

”21 Jump Street” is the good-time movie surprise of the year. You have the right to laugh your ass off!

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