Review: 21 Jump Street (2012)

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Directors: Christopher Miller & Phil Lord
Screenwriters: Michael Bacall & Jonah Hill
Based on the television series of the same name
Cast: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Brie Larson, Dave Franco, Ice Cube, Rob Riggle, Ellie Kemper, Caroline Aaron & Nick Offerman
Runtime: 109 min // Certificate: 15

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZirgAYBcOgo]

Like Zac Efron, who I recently praised in my review of Bad Neighbours, Channing Tatum’s calling seems to be lowbrow comedy. That’s not a slur; Tatum has never been great in dramatic roles but he more than holds his own when he’s given some humorous material to work with, as evidenced by his role here and his hilarious cameo appearance in This is the End. Alongside Jonah Hill, an actor whose career has gone from strength to strength over the last few years, Tatum carries 21 Jump Street through thick and thin, demonstrating a real knack for comedy; a discipline which – contrary to popular belief – is one of the most difficult to pull off effectively.

Loosely based on the 80s-90s television series of the same name, 21 Jump Street is classic high-concept comedy. It follows two inept police officers – Morton Schmidt (Hill) and Greg Jenko (Tatum) – who are thrown into the revived “Jump Street” program, in which youthful cops go undercover as students at high schools to investigate crimes. After a grilling from the rather aggressive Captain Dickson (Ice Cube), Schmidt and Jenko are sent to a local high school to halt the production of a new drug – HFS (which stands for “Holy Fucking Shit”) – before it can spread around the local community. On arrival at the school, they find that the old hierarchies have completely changed – “nerd” is the new cool, intelligence is no longer a curse and the teachers give less of a shit than the students – so they’ll have to work hard to fit in and maintain their cover.

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The thing with films like 21 Jump Street is that you can tell exactly how they’re going to play out before they even start, which is why it’s so crucial to strike the right balance between humour and plot; or, in effect, the plot needs to take a backseat to let the jokes shine through. In this film’s case, what we get is an attempt to deliver a relatively straightforward story in which much of the humour can be derived from the very situation itself. The extent to which this approach works is debatable, but as the film enters its high-octane, slapstick-heavy final act, the audience gets a small but satisfactory pay off with a decent conclusion that remains relatively funny.

Of course, most of the humour here is crude and simplistic, but thanks to some intriguing direction from Miller and Lord (now best known as the directors of The LEGO Movie) and a warm, playful screenplay from Hill and Bacall, 21 Jump Street is surprisingly good. The stereotypical “modern” students that Schmidt and Jenko encounter are humorous enough, while the villains are one-dimensional but amusing, what with their big beards and drug addictions. If I had to pick a star it’d be Dave Franco, who manages to come across as both pathetic and grubby in equal measure, but all of the cast do a solid job with what they’re given.

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I don’t think 21 Jump Street is consistently funny, and even at 109 minutes it stretches its central concept pretty thin (which doesn’t fill me with a great deal of hope for the sequel, out next month), but there are certain scenes – such as when the characters are high on HFS, or whenever Schmidt’s Mother (who is played to perfection by the wonderful Caroline Aaron) – which really do work, while the rest of the gags depend heavily on the audience’s mood. The camaraderie between Hill and Tatum feels genuine, which helps push the film through its more turgid moments, and though the whole “friends out of time” shtick has been done to death, it still resonates here as both the writers and the directors seem to have a decent grasp of the “modern yoof”‘s thoughts, feelings and desires.

Ultimately, 21 Jump Street does what you want it to. It isn’t a ground-breaking comedy but it contains just about enough laughs to justify giving it a go. I’m always wary whenever films try to blend action and comedy, not least because the final act always seems to descend into little more than a jumpy-shouty-shooty load of nonsense, and 21 Jump Street is no exception, but thanks to some assured direction from Miller and Lord, it just about manages to wade through all of that unscathed. I wanted the film to make me laugh, it did, and so as far as I’m concerned it did its job.

I just hope the sequel isn’t as bad as the trailer makes it look…

★★★

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