“He who can laugh at himself will never cease to be amused.” Phil Lord and Chris Miller must have made this their daily mantra as they took on the cinematic revival of 1980s television show 21 Jump Street. As a result, the audience is treated to a comedy that never takes itself seriously but doesn’t fall into the trap of being so ridiculous that it becomes unwatchable.
Our story doesn’t waste time, as we follow Schmidt, played by Jonah Hill, and Jenko, played by Channing Tatum, go through high school, a training / tutoring montage, and their graduation from the police academy within the first 15 minutes of the film. Although one could argue that the pacing is a bit rushed, this was done intentionally to make a mocking homage to so many of the cop comedies of the 80s that came before, such as Police Academy. We know what the outcome is going to be, and how it is going to establish these characters, so the movie dispenses with that and gets to the new stuff that it is bringing to the table.
After a botched drug arrest, these two underachieving police officers are transferred to the recently reinstated 21 Jump Street initiative, designed to infiltrate high schools and do undercover operations. However, this story, if one can call it that, is merely an excuse to get each of the respective cops into their next comedic situation, which is both one of the film’s strengths and weaknesses.
Realizing that many similar movies that have come before are dreadfully cliché and overused, 21Jump Street dispenses with those unpleasantries and gets right to the hilarity. Unfortunately, since we aren’t given ample time to adjust from one scene to another, a lot of the pacing feels rushed and like flimsy attempts to just get to a punch line, which is almost invariably a penis joke.
The dialogue here isn’t exactly going to be winning any Academy Awards for thought provoking, philosophical integrity. However, it is still intelligent for the source material. There are two kinds of lowbrow humor. The first is blunt, uninspired and done merely for the shock value of the punch line; such as Beavis and Butthead laughing because someone said boobs. The second requires misdirection, appropriate musical accompaniment, and silence as well as a realistic set up so that the joke flows naturally in the situation. As a result of the writing and casting here, more often than not, we are given the latter.
The tandem of Tatum and Hill compliment each other very well. The physically imposing, idiotic, nearly stoic yet still passionate Tatum plays to Hill’s snarky albeit naïve nerd character perfectly. And when the two characters are forced to relive high school from the other’s perspective, one cannot help but appreciate the brief albeit nearly pointless character development. Without this development, it would have made for a much shallower and less effectual comedy; however, there wasn’t sufficient substance for a plot to warrant any deep characterization.
The subtle meta moments in this movie are what really make it head and shoulders above other comedies in the revival sub-genre. Whether it’s the captain briefly forgetting the address on Jump Street or a cameo from two certain characters from yesteryear, we are treated to a film that walks the very fine line between making a parody and trying to seriously make a movie based on its clearly dated and overused source material. Fortunately, this movie feels more like Charlie’s Angels with its over the top action and self-aware comedy instead of the attempted revival of Miami Vice.
Many may criticize 21 Jump Street for its apparent rushed pacing, lack of plot or character development, and its one-dimensional, crass focused comedic style. They would be missing the inherent subtlety of this movie. It takes the high road of its blue comedy and does ample tribute to its source material while never taking itself too seriously, and one needn’t see the television show to appreciate the nods to it. It is a solid comedy that adults will enjoy, however the crass language and drug usage should deter most younger and sensitive viewers.