“21 Jump Street” is the kind of raunchy comedy, like “The Hangover,” that just works. I’m not saying it’s great but given what it has to work with (drugs, alcohol, guys who swear, violence, sex) it somehow manages to pull it off. The film starts off with a high-energy momentum that keeps it going at a nice swift pace. It doesn’t wallow around in a bunch of side plots; it doesn’t take a downer turn at the end. It has a clear objective and for the most part it follows through.
It quickly sets itself up: Two recent additions to the police force, the short, slightly awkward and dorky Morton (a slimmed down Jonah Hill) and the big, good-looking dummy Greg (a regular looking Channing Tatum) are transferred to the 21 Jump Street program. A Program that puts young looking officers such as themselves undercover in high schools. There’s a new synthetic drug that’s popular among students and they have to find the dealer and the distributer. Their boss tells them to not get expelled and not to take any drugs or alcohol of any kind. By standard guy comedic logic we know that all of this stuff will happen. They also can’t go too deep, like say fall for a pretty girl, but we also know by standard comedy rules this will happen as well. These aren’t criticisms by any means, just observations. Letting you know now, so that you don’t get blind-sided by these plot developments.
Just about every character in the movie is stereotype. The pair’s boss Captain Dickenson (Ice Cube, always worth a few laughs) is the traditional police boss who yells and gets angry. There’s a stereotypical uptight drama teacher at the school, a stereotypical motorcycle gang that helps push the stuff. Heck Morton and Greg are big stereotypes. When they were in high school Greg was the popular (but still dumb) jock that made fun of nerds like Morton and now in their adulthood are paired up and have become friends. But the stereotypes work, because the film acknowledges them. “Embrace your stereotypes,” Dickinson says to the Jump Street recruits on the first day.
The movie is based on a 1987 TV show that starred Johnny Depp (who makes a cameo), so of course the premise is a little outdated and corny but the movie knows that and it has good old nostalgic fun with that. There’s a joke where the official who transfers the pair says by accident 37 Jump Street.
At the same time however “21 Jump Street” isn’t just stuck in the past. The directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, along with screenwriter Michael Bacall make sure to update it to modern times. Greg and Morton do embrace their stereotypes but that’s a problem. Times have changed, no longer does the cool crowd play sports and beat up on nerds like Greg used to do. No, they care about the environment, compost and ride bikes whenever they can. What’s up with that, right? That’s at least what Greg is thinking, as he gradually becomes the outcast, hanging out with the nerds.
Morton, on the other hand, is fitting in just fine and it’s he who becomes tight with the main dealer named Eric (Dave Franco) and who goes in too deep when he falls for Eric’s friend Molly (Brie Larson). Surprisingly this is where some of the funniest bits of humor came from. The fact that the popular kids actually give a damn about the planet and hurting others. It’s a little over exaggerated at times but that’s all part of the gag.
Hill and Tatum are right at home with these roles. Hill has made a name for himself playing the awkward, dorky “trying to be cool” guy. He just has a way of taking a line as simple as “you do have the right to be an attorney” and can make it sound funny. The same goes for Tatum, I’ve always thought of him as mediocre, somewhat bland actor but in this case his bland oafishness is exactly what the role of Greg requires. Perhaps he should lay off those action movies and stick to comedy.
Now, yes the momentum I mentioned does slightly stop at the end. Like many buddy cop pictures “21 Jump Street” settles for the standard, car chase/shootout between the baddies climax. It doesn’t matter how funny the movie is, chase/gun fights are boring in that context. Until then though, “21” is a joy to watch, high energy, it knows what kind of movie it is and embraces it and it’s consistently funny.