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Review: 21 Jump Street (2012)

21 Jump Street (2012)

Directed by: Phil Lord and Chris Miller

Premise: An adaptation of the 1980s television show. A pair of police officers (Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum) is assigned to a special unit in which they go undercover as high school students.

What Works: 21 Jump Street is a surprisingly funny and enjoyable film. An adaptation of a television show is risky because these kinds of projects often have results that neither honor the original material nor successfully adapt it for a new audience. For every success like The Fugitive or The A-Team there are many more disasters like The Dukes of Hazzard, Starsky & Hutch, Leave It to Beaver, and Car 54, Where Are You? But the film adaptation of 21 Jump Street navigates around potential mistakes and gets off on the right foot by establishing a self-conscious attitude and making obvious reference to the clichés of its genre. This is also risky because that kind of self-consciousness can come off as smug but 21 Jump Street gets it right and the film’s self-reflexive moments and pop culture allusions are less obtuse as they were in Shrek 2 and more hip as in Scream. The self-consciousness lets the audience in on the joke and it has a disarming effect, especially for viewers who are weary of remakes. 21 Jump Street manages to do all this through some effective casting and a smart script. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum play the undercover cops and the two have an enjoyable odd couple relationship. Buddy cop films often fail or succeed on the rapport between the pair and within the conceit of the film Hill and Tatum are believable and likable. Just as in a romance, the audience has to want their partnership to work out and 21 Jump Street nicely plays on that angle. The mismatch of Hill’s cherubic intellectual with Tatum’s muscular idiot is nothing new but the film uses two reversals to shake up the formula, first by swapping their undercover identities so that each character is put outside of their comfort zone, and then by playing on the generational changes in high school culture, where the outcast is now top dog and the former high school patrician finds himself marginalized. This is done very intelligently and makes the picture one of the better riffs on the high school formula.

What Doesn’t: 21 Jump Street is enjoyable but it does suffer from an inconsistent tone. The picture opens with Hill and Tatum’s characters as patrol officers and the comic absurdity of these early scenes plays much like Reno 911! As the story moves to the high school setting it becomes a much more conventional adolescent comedy and in the climax it plays much like a straight action film. The shifts in tone between these segments are not very elegant. The scenes of violence are particularly troubling for the film; much of the picture has a buffoonish quality but the chases and shootouts are matters of life and death. 21 Jump Street also has serious lapses in its own internal logic. Comedies are often allowed to have more latitude with reality but Hill and Tatum’s characters violate so many of the rules outlined by their captain (Ice Cube) that the film undermines the credibility of its premise.

Bottom Line: Although it is flawed, 21 Jump Street is a great deal of fun. The movie will be enjoyable by those who remember the television series while appealing to a new audience and the film is a smart take on the high school and buddy cop genres.   

Episode: #381 (March 25, 2012)