Sony // 2012 // 110 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // June 29th, 2012
"I would've tooken a bullet for you."
Rookie cops Schmidt (Jonah Hill, Superbad) and Jenko (Channing Tatum, Stop-Loss) are dismayed by their first assignment: bike patrol in the park. Their luck seems destined to change when they make their first bust: bikers with drugs!
Unfortunately, the athletic but dimwitted Jenko neglects to properly Miranda a suspect, so the bust goes bust. However, there's an upside: the two are transferred to an undercover unit working out of 21 Jump Street. Their youthful looks and all-around immaturity make them prime candidates to impersonate teenagers and infiltrate a synthetic drug operation at the local high school.
While Jenko had been a popular, athletic, "cool kid," Schmidt was his polar opposite; it's assumed by their captain (Ice Cube, Anaconda) that they'll just fit into the roles they had when they graduated. But an ID mix-up casts Schmidt in with the cool kids and Jenko in with the nerds.
Disaster? Actually, no -- apparently, in the seven years since they were students, "uncool" has become the new cool, "arrogant jock" has become a pariah, and the learning curve is steeper than they could imagine.
Given the generally dismal track record of movies based on classic TV series, it would have been easy for 21 Jump Street to have gone belly up out of the gate. Too often, these adaptations are nothing more than self-referencing knock-offs whose only reason for being is to capitalize on an established brand.
With 21 Jump Street, writers Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill, and directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, dispense with the nostalgia handily, using the Jump Street theme as a jumping-off point for one of the better buddy/action comedies to come along in a while.
When I say "dispense," I mean literally: when the Jump Street operation is explained to Schmidt and Jenko, it's as a revived "canceled program from the '80s." While the film contains a number of references to the series, it's not homage; you don't have to be a fan of the show to enjoy this. They could just as easily have riffed High School Confidential! or '70s relic David Cassidy: Man Undercover.
The real story is about the misfit cops bumbling their way through a series of misadventures as obviously-too-old high schoolers.
Jenko and Schmidt become Brad and Doug McQuaid, brothers who transfer in at the end of the school year. As part of the ruse, they move in with Schmidt's weird parents (Caroline Aaron, Along Came Polly, and Joe Chrest, Texas Killing Fields).
The return to school is a shock: bullying and slacking off is out. The "cool kids" are now smart, savvy, and technically and environmentally aware. Jenko's style of slacker cool makes him the outcast, so he buddies up with the science geeks, while Schmidt starts living a wish fulfillment fantasy as a popular kid.
Thus, we have the whole "fish out of water" trope doubling back on itself. That Schmidt and Jenko end up being more invested in their high school lives than in their cop lives is no surprise; what is surprising is how fresh and clever the whole thing is.
21 Jump Street is crass, irreverent, and downright hilarious, featuring a sharp, sarcastic, and profane script and spot-on performances. The cheap, gross-out humor that's become a comedy staple is thankfully kept to a minimum; in fact, the most disgusting scene comes near the end and feels a little out of place, like something that squeaked through the drafting process.
The big, comic set pieces work well -- including Schmidt and Jenko's unfortunate experience ingesting the drug HFS and a party they throw for their underage friends, complete with a pound of pot pilfered from the police evidence room -- as do the action scenes, one of which features a great riff on movie car chases. But the film is just as funny in its smaller moments, with Aaron's nagging mother, Ice Cube's volatile, foul-mouthed captain, and Ron Riggle's sports coach among the stand-outs.
But the film wouldn't work without strong leads, and Hill and Tatum are outstanding as the barely-passing-for-teen cops. Jonah Hill has come a long way in a career that's less than a decade old, from oddball supporting actor, to Oscar-nominated (oddball) supporting actor (Moneyball) to a newly svelte (he dropped 40 pounds for this) leading man/character actor. With story and production credits, 21 Jump Street is very much his project, and he makes the most of it, offering a funny and touching performance.
Channing Tatum shows himself to be more than just a good-looking, kinda wooden action hero/romantic leading guy. Tatum should really concentrate more on character comedy; he has a great sense of timing and knows how to use small gestures and facial expressions to great effect. If he doesn't quite steal the film from his more experienced co-stars, he comes awfully close. Jenko could easily have been a one-dimensional "dumb guy," but Tatum brings such genuine depth and vulnerability to the part that we connect with this character -- his assimilation into the Schmidt family is flat-out charming. On top of that, he seems to be having a great time, with his scenes with his new, nerdy friends among the highlights.
The chemistry between Hill and Tatum is pretty awesome; they play off each other like long-time partners, and the film isn't afraid to show them as affectionate -- or to send up the whole "bromance" business in a number of awkwardly hilarious scenes. Yeah, this is a big bromance film. In fact, if this film were any more bromantic, it would be a same-sex Nicholas Sparks story. It works, though; when the obligatory third-act friendship crisis pops up, it feels more organic than usual (and of course, plays out much funnier).
Sony's DVD of 21 Jump Street offers a decent, if slightly dull, image, and a serviceable Dolby surround track. Also included are an English descriptive track and a French dub.
The DVD contains a handful of supplements; there are a bunch more on the Blu-ray. It's a little ironic that I'm reviewing the standard DVD, since Sony has apparently gone the extra mile with the high-def package, more than justifying the extra few bucks. The supplements here include a subtitled commentary with Hill, Tatum, Lord, and Miller; "Back to School," a behind-the-scenes featurette; and some deleted and extended scenes. There are also instructions and a code for downloading a digital copy from the Sony Web site.
Not really a criticism of the film, but just a comment on how the wealth of information now available has kind of turned the media into one big spoiler machine.
21 Jump Street features a number of fun guest star appearances, and part of that fun should be the surprise aspect. But when the film was released, a whole bunch of reviews and articles not only tipped readers off to who was appearing, but in some cases, gave away big chunks of the plot to describe those appearances.
Granted, 21 Jump Street isn't exactly The Crying Game in terms of plot twists, but does it really enhance a review to throw out spoilers like that? Are writers afraid their readers will think they missed the joke if they don't give it away?
The Blu-ray even contains a featurette about one guest star and lists it on the back of the case, so if you'd somehow avoided all the other giveaways, just reading the lineup on the box would ruin it.
I just really wish reviewers, entertainment writers -- and, I guess, the people who write box copy for DVD releases and titles for supplements -- would take it on themselves to be a little more responsible about how much they divulge.
21 Jump Street had a successful theatrical run in March 2012, and apparently, a sequel is in the works. Good. This is one of the best action comedies I've seen in a while, and I'd love to see Hill, Tatum, and company re-up. Highly recommended.
Not guilty, bro.
Review content copyright © 2012 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English, Descriptive)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Ultraviolet Download