Friday, March 16, 2012

21 Jump Street

These Are The Guys You Made Fun Of In High School, And They're Back In High School Again

Jonah Hill as Officer Schmidt and Channing Tatum as Officer Jenko in "21 Jump Street", directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. 
Sony Pictures


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, March 16
, 2012

Phil Lord and Christopher Miller bring "21 Jump Street" to the big screen in rip-roaring style, 21 years after the television series had its final season.  The action-comedy opened today across the U.S. and Canada, and stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum as Louisiana police officers Schmidt and Jenko, cops assigned to be students undercover at a high school to bust a suspected drugs ring which has taken the life of a male student named Billiam, whose five stages of drug-addled decline are a hit on YouTube.

The pulse of this break-neck, laugh-a-minute guilty pleasure throbs incessantly, quickly following the high schol lows of nerd Schmidt and dunce-cap jock Jenko then catapulting them seven years later as police academy grads embarking on their first assignment.  What's great about "21 Jump Street" is the carnival of fun it has with its role reversal of the nerd-jock dynamic once the mismatched Jenko and Schmidt break their metaphorical cherries as cops.  "21 Jump Street", an unbridled parody of both the television show and endless big screen police-buddy dramas and comedies, has a sense of raw, no-holds-barred adventure and a charm that's infectious. 

Even when "21 Jump Street" becomes redundant it remains sharply entertaining, with its mix of physical and smart-alecky humor.  "21 Jump Street" never advertises itself as anything higher brow than the silliness it is.  It is however, wise silliness, engineered by Michael Bacall's hilarious screenplay and good acting by Mr. Hill ("The Sitter", "Moneyball") and Mr. Tatum ("The Vow"), acting that is the best part of the film, even without all its juvenile exploits.  Mr. Hill brings sweetness and nerdy awkwardness to the table, while Mr. Tatum brings vacuous numbskull shtick, smartly calculated.  Schmidt and Jenko, who barbed each other in their own high school days, are buddies of accident and necessity who get to live a little in each other's skin.  Both want some of the other's attributes for self-completion without having to inhabit the other's skin or circumstances for the sake of a crime-fighting assignment. 

The film's contrasting characters work, and Mr. Hill, and Mr. Tatum in particular, shrewdly poke fun at the idea (and the original show's) that they are young enough to be high school students.  Both actors are in on all of the jokes, alternately playing wise and dumb to them, with retorts at characters with the gumption they wished they'd mustered more of when Schmidt and Jenko really were high school students.

Mr. Lord and Mr. Miller's film is at its sharpest when it humorously defies and laughs in the face of genre expectations at every turn.  "21 Jump Street" exuberantly throws the buddy-cop action film on its head, and doesn't relent.  Ice Cube is memorable as Captain Dickson, his blank stares as resolute as the delivery and enunciation of his speech.  Mr. Cube seems to do his level best to rival Samuel L. Jackson at saying the ignominious "motherfucker" in the most eloquent way possible.  When the chips really fall Dickson refuses to shout like those other stereotypical black police commanders.  Oh no -- not Dickson.  He won't go there.  The film knowingly sends up Ice Cube's reticence to play that barking game, cheekily countering and overshadowing it with a rich, loud helping later of his hit rap song "Straight Outta Compton".  (The roof would have been laughed right off the theater had Cube's "Fuck Tha Police" played instead.) 

The film's music defiantly plays counter to its other elements.  Its soundtrack continuously beats with its subversive anthem of rap -- at least the rap that is heavily anti-establishment or self-aggrandizing -- juxtaposed with and against the film's figures of authority (police, teachers, parents). 

Speaking of authority, Mr. Cube has become more appealing (if not mainstream) over the years by playing against the renegade type that defined much of his earlier music career and film roles.  Since the box-office success of "Are We There Yet?" Mr. Cube has smoothly transitioned to All-American Family Man and "safe" establishment figure.  (See "Rampart", in which he's a police investigator of corrupt cop Woody Harrelson.)

Ellie Kemper ("Bridesmaids") is amusing as a chemistry teacher who comes on to Jenko in class, try as she might to save herself from blurring her role as teacher -- one skirted in relationships with students in real news headlines -- with lusty lady.  A little of Ms. Kemper's lecher teacher goes a long way however, and in the film's "Natural Born Killers"-type end credits a scene between between Mr. Tatum and Ms. Kemper releases tension that's been brewing since their eyes met.

More than anything, "21 Jump Street", which has the energy and verve of fellow Sony Pictures buddy-cop genre releases like "Bad Boys" and "The Other Guys", is about unfinished business, payback and revisiting the yesteryears of life.  Schmidt has a fear of rejection that has its roots in a rhetorical question posed at his own high school prom that makes him feel 21 inches tall.  Jenko wishes he could be *that* much smarter.  The latter is advised to stay away from the ladies, while the former wants so much to be near them so as to reclaim his manhood and recover from a seven-year-old trauma that still haunts him. 

Meanwhile, both cops' inadequacies are masked by their beat-downs of black drug-dealing suspects and their gleeful bonding over that triumph.  The playful, take-no-prisoners' spirit of "21 Jump Street" is an admirable quality in itself, going to all the "incorrect" places no recent big-screen American police comedies or dramas -- other than "48 HRS." and "Q&A", both starring Nick Nolte as a racist cop -- dare go.

"21 Jump Street" may well break the Guinness Book Of World Records for its sheer number of penis references, jokes and subliminal phallic images.  It's utter overkill.  You wonder why there's such a deep preoccupation with the penis in a vast majority of American male-directed comedies.  Start, for one, with the film's cheeky poster (below), which telegraphs who has a rock solid gun and who's lacking their Wheaties in the below-the-belt department.  The film's final 15 minutes are its weakest and most shrill, where goofiness and any remaining comic intelligence runs completely off the rails, giving way to gross-outs that "21 Jump Street", a surprisingly good, rollicking and bizarrely buoyant trip, doesn't deserve.

Sony Pictures

With: Dave Franco, Brie Larson, Rob Riggle, DeRay Davis, Caroline Aaron, Johnny Pemberton, Stanley Wong.

"21 Jump Street" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for crude and sexual content, pervasive language, drug material, teen drinking and some violence.  The film's running time is one hour and 49 minutes.

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