A comedy that’s longer than 90 minutes and doesn’t run out of steam? Say it ain’t so! 21 Jump Street is the big screen version of the old-school TV show of the same name, which catapulted Johnny Depp to stardom back in his teen idol days. This silver screen remake/reboot/spin-off however has been updated with smart-but-slow Schmidt (Jonah Hill; Moneyball) and buff-but-slow Jenko (Channing Tatum; The Vow). They play nascent, overeager cops and are the type whose expectations of policing are based on a diet of Bad Boys, Die Hard and other explosive cop movies. The story here does a great job of undercutting their expectations when things don’t always ‘go boom!’ – though there’s still enough of that to be enjoyed.
When their first bust goes awry, Schmidt and Jenko are repurposed and assigned to 21 Jump Street. There, under the leadership of forever angry Captain Dickson (Ice Cube), they begin an operation to infiltrate a gang of dealers in order to find the supplier of a new and deadly synthetic drug. The catch is that the dealers are students at high school, so it’s back to school as undercover students for the pair of ‘Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus’ lookalikes (in what universe?!).
Jenko doesn’t mind the assignment since he was Mr Popular back in his heyday, whereas Schmidt was the overweight nerd who was always picked on. But things are different now – times have changed – and it’s Jenko who struggles to fit in while Schmidt parties it up. This role reversal leads to a lot of fun body-swap style jokes, without any of the associated lameness of something like The Change-Up. Add in the buddy cop dynamic of movies like 48 Hours, Rush Hour and the aforementioned Bad Boys, and you’ve got a good mix a comedic angles that the film can and does take.
That said, it’s the fourth wall breaking and self-referential humour that impresses the most, with a fantastic cameo that actually caused an eruption of cheers from the audience I was with. It’s one of those fist-punching ‘hell yeah!’ moments when you know a movie has gone from being pretty good to great. There’s also some surprisingly graphic violence later on – think Hot Fuzz, though probably not quite to the same extent – which lent the film somewhat of a refreshing, edgier tone.
Yet it sadly adheres to the ancient buddy cop formula, which is unoriginal and disappointing. You’ve got the two reluctant partners who are forced to work together. After an uneasy early stage they become friends and realise that they work well with each other. For a while things seem to be going fine, but then the cracks appear (usually involving a girl, as is the case here). Now it’s time for the falling out: the partners have a big argument and storm out on one another. Things reach an all-time low but then something happens that forces the pair back together. They forgive each other and manage to save the day with their newfound strength. The end.
To its credit, 21 Jump Street does manage to throw a few small wrenches in the old story structure but I still found myself groaning under the weight of some of these tired clichés. They really have been done to death; is it that hard to come up with a buddy cop story that works outside of them? Anyhow, formula and Ice Cube’s nonsensical swearing aside, directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) have crafted a film that nonetheless offers consistent laughs throughout. Crucially, Schmidt and Jenko make for a solid duo; Hill is good as always but it’s Tatum who surprises in a likeable performance that imparts the awesomeness of doves flying in slow motion.
Self-referential, buddy cop humour at its best; there’s a lot of stupid stuff in 21 Jump Street but at least it has the decency to poke fun at itself. The result? Huge laughs helped along by great chemistry between leads Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum.