21 Jump Street excels at toying with the audience's expectations.
When film buffs first heard that the iconic 1980s TV series, 21 Jump Street - about a baby-faced undercover police force that specializes in investigating crimes perpetuated at High Schools and colleges - reactions were largely negative. The backlash was due, at least in part, to the number of underwhelming franchise remakes that Hollywood has been churning out over the last few years (Miami Vice and Starsky and Hutch come to mind). However, other would-be moviegoers were simply skeptical of how producers would handle the 21 Jump Street property - specifically fan-favorite character, Officer Tom Hanson, who was played by a pre-Edward Scissorhands Johnny Depp.
Then, even the most skeptical move buffs stopped and took notice when directing team, Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) were hired on for the project and cast oddball pair Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum in lead roles (neither one plays Hanson). So, does Lord and Miller's 21 Jump Street remake ultimately offer up an entertaining trip to the theater that 21 Jump Street fans and non-fans can both enjoy?
Fortunately, the answer is yes. The film certainly takes its own approach to the 21 Jump Street source material, but it does so knowingly and with a lot of tongue in cheek humor - there's even a joke about repackaging something old and reselling it to the same people again and again. As a result, 21 Jump Street excels at toying with the audience's expectations. While plot developments adhere to an archetypal 80s format (making the overarching storyline pretty predictable), the various action and comedy scenes are full of surprises.
The success of the film will largely depend on what moviegoers might be expecting from a 21 Jump Street remake - as this is most definitely not a "gritty" or "grounded" update to the basic premise. Lord and Miller's Jump Street is unapologetic in attempting to be a laugh-a-minute riff on the absurdity of the source material's undercover cops in high school storyline. In the remake, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) reconnect years after they graduated from the same high school, and together, the pair successfully complete the rigors of police academy - with Schmidt overseeing their studies and Jenko in charge of their physical training. However, when the two botch their first actual arrest, they're kicked over to Captain Dickson (Ice Cube), who runs a covert police operation placing youthful-looking (and immature acting) officers in schools and universities to infiltrate crime organizations. Without anywhere else to go, and looking for a chance at redemption (and/or to be cool in high school), Schmidt and Jenko sign on at 21 Jump Street.
Some moviegoers were skeptical about the casting of Hill and Tatum - considering that both actors have had headlined their share of cinematic duds (The Sitter and Stop-Loss, respectively). Hill in particular is often known for roles that rely on over-the-top gross-out humor - a standard that the 21 Jump Street marketing team was eager to embrace. However, while 21 Jump Street does have plenty of low-brow comedy moments, there's also an abundance of sharper gags that will sing even for viewers who might be turned off by penis jokes.
As a result, Hill is noticeably at home with the 21 Jump Street subject matter, playing an awkward and irreverent "high schooler" trying to fit in. While Schmidt is nothing we haven't seen from the actor before, combined with Tatum's Jenko, audiences will get to see Hill's familiar shtick play against a very different sidekick - resulting in a number of laugh-out-loud gags. Tatum, who usually plays muscled tough guys (see: Haywire and G.I. Joe, among others) and/or charming lover boys (The Vow) has a surprising talent for comedy - and the actor not only keeps up with Hill's fast-paced timing, he also brings a lot of heart to the Jenko character (which is somewhat lacking in this particular version of Hill's awkward guy formula).
Side characters like Tracey (Brie Larson) and Eric (Dave Franco) are enjoyable to watch at first - as they play against Jenko and Schmidt's cool-kid expectations. That said, many of the 21 Jump Street supporting players ultimately devolve into caricatures by the end of the film and are forced into dramatic shifts that aren't particularly developed or earned through preceding scene work. These shifts don't detract from the comedy, and it's certainly possible they were an intentional attempt at rousing 80's movie tropes, but they undermine opportunities to have done something more nuanced with the anti-stereotypes the film has established. Once in awhile, it's as if riffing on the TV source material is more important than delivering a fully-realized modern movie experience.
Similarly, the overarching plot of the film is about as thin as its remake inspiration - and would completely buckle under the weight of play-by-play analysis or scrutiny. Viewers looking for an intriguing undercover cop story should definitely look elsewhere, as - aside from reconnaissance work performed by Jenko and his new chemistry-loving friends - our officer leads don't actually engage in particularly compelling police work; the focus of the film is clearly on crazy antics, not an intricate narcotics investigation. Regardless of the director pair's intent, the finale (despite a lot of gunfire and explosions) may be somewhat underwhelming for anyone hoping to see an interesting pay off to the narcotics storyline. Not to mention, considering the undercover cop "reality" of 21 Jump Street, the finale also includes one of the most awkward "emotional" plot point resolutions in recent memory.
Ultimately, criticism of the 21 Jump Street story shouldn't be taken as a denouncement of the 21 Jump Street experience - since the film delivers on its intended purpose to provide laugh-a-minute antics within the flimsy premise of the source material. However, much like their protagonists (who get overwhelmed by their undercover lives), it's as if Lord and Miller got overwhelmed by their comedy gags, and lost sight of a few core fundamentals that make for a great modern day movie. Ultimately, they get the remake job done with tongue-in-cheek style and plenty of outrageous moments - but that doesn't mean there aren't a few slip-ups that could have offered an even better payoff.
If you’re still on the fence about 21 Jump Street, check out the trailer below:
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21 Jump Street is rated R for for crude and sexual content, pervasive language, drug material, teen drinking and some violence. Now playing in theaters.