Saturday, March 17, 2012

Held Back: 21 JUMP STREET

Being forced to repeat high school would be something of a waking nightmare for many of us. But isn’t it even the slightest bit tempting to get a second chance at what is, let’s face it, an important, but not that important, part of life? Surely everyone at least entertains the idea of a do-over for some piece of his or her past. To be forced back into the halls of high school would basically be a rubber-stamped approval for extended adolescence, or at least that’s what happens to the undercover cops in the movie remake of the late-80’s high concept cop show 21 Jump Street. They may be immature, but that’s kind of their job now, right?

The series ran on Fox from 1987 to 1991 and starred Johnny Depp as a fresh-faced cop assigned to go undercover as a high school student. The new big budget R-rated Hollywood comedy keeps the show’s high concept and plays it louder and faster, in a way that's more blatantly goofy, vulgar, and violent (sometimes shockingly so). And it works. It’s a slick, competent, surface-level entertainment, a smart adaptation that turns the basic plot hooks into a loving homage to buddy cop movies driven straight through a raunchy high school comedy. If the series was Miami Vice by way of Square Pegs, than the movie remake is Bad Boys in Superbad.

It starts in 2005, a time when a dweeb (Jonah Hill) and jock (Channing Tatum) barely interacted except for the times when the jock laughed at the dweeb for getting a brutal rejection from a pretty girl. They weren’t enemies; they just moved in vastly different circles. But now it’s present day and they’re both in the same police academy. They find they actually get along now. The dweeb helps the jock with the written work and the jock helps the dweeb with his physical trials and marksmanship. They’re so very excited to be cops that when their boring, low-stakes park patrol turns into a bungled drug bust, they’re dismayed to find themselves passed off into a secret program run by a mean stereotype of a commanding officer (Ice Cube) who informs them that they’re going undercover as high school students to track down a new drug ring.

To make matters worse, they’re posing as brothers. They’re a little too old. They’re a little too dissimilar. Yet pass themselves off as teen brothers they must. It’s a rich set-up for comedy and the script from Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill takes funny zigs and zags through a teen comedy terrain that is rife with youthful temptations for the rookie cops. They can’t help but fall back into their own petty high school mentalities but find themselves in an odd type of culture shock. As one who actually was in high school in 2005, I found myself gripped with a kind of mild terror. Could things be that different already? It hasn’t been that many years, has it? Time flies.

Suddenly Tatum’s cool jock style won’t fly and the nervous dorkiness of Hill is oddly appealing. You see, bullying, even of the mild variety, isn’t a surefire ticket to popularity that Tatum seems to think it is. Hill, on the other hand, marvels that the cool crowd is all about caring for the environment. Kids these days. So the two guys are startled to find themselves at the opposite ends of the teenage totem pole. The jock hangs with the chemistry nerds while the dweeb gets closer to the popular kids, especially a sweet girl (Brie Larson) who happens to be in a relationship with the main pusher (Dave Franco, James’s younger brother).

That the two undercover cops are opposites is a typical buddy cop trope. That they’re in a high school, forced to work out old differences and form new ways of social navigation, not to mention learn how to get along and how to be good at their fairly new jobs, creates a fun tension. Of course, it wouldn’t work at all without the winning chemistry between Tatum and Hill who have such a terrific brotherly rapport that they ping off each other with equal parts simpatico bluster and clashing competitiveness, an aggressive but loving friendship that develops in convincing ways. They’re both so game and eager to please that their timing develops the satisfying snap of an agreeable, comfortable comic partnership. I wish the supporting cast could have been used more memorably – Nick Offerman, Parks & Rec’s great Ron Swanson himself, appears in a single scene – but the main protagonists are wonderful anchors.

The plot is basic cop stuff complete with a couple of well-deployed twists, some mostly routine car chases and shootouts, and some perfect, absolutely perfect, cameos. The high school jokes are sometimes obvious – of course parents turn around and interrupt a raucous party – but they too are filled out with such specific and odd details amongst the students and faculty that it transcends its obviousness and finds new funny details in the corners of the hurtling pace of the rough detective through line. I especially liked the exasperated principal (Jake Johnson), the giggly chemistry teacher (Ellie Kemper), and the small gang of science geeks who have permission to go to the chemistry lab early in order to play Bakugan. I’m not sure what that is, but I know it’s some kind of game, which is better than Tatum, who angrily demands to know if it’s drugs.

This is hardly a perfect film – it’s lumpy and shambling in spots and fairly thin overall – but there’s an incredible energy to the way it’s put together. The script joins the two main threads in a self-aware way that draws out the implausibilities to often-great comedic effect. Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, they bring some of the same inventiveness and willingness to variously reject and embrace cliché for laughs that they displayed in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. They know sometimes the funniest thing is to do just what’s expected only to pull back at the last second. Yes, the directors behind the most hilarious animated family film in recent memory have created a pretty good live-action R-rated romp of an action-comedy. 21 Jump Street may not be as polished or dense with jokes (and certainly not as family friendly) as Cloudy, but it’s still a stylish, fast-paced entertainment of its own   

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