Absolutely hilarious from beginning to end, 21 Jump Street not only delivers the gold standard for remakes but also one of the best comedies in years.
Based on the hour long 1987 Fox series of the same name that introduced the world to now obscure and barely remembered actor Johnny Depp, 21 Jump Street tells the story of two cops who are entirely too immature to be taken seriously as cops and who are assigned to go undercover as high school students to infiltrate a drug ring and find its supplier before a new and dangerous drug spills out to other high schools. Back when they were actually in high school Jenko (Channing Tatum) was a popular jock who made fun of Schmidt (Jonah Hill), a nerd who failed to find any popularity or acceptance. The two reconnect as adults in the police academy and find they can help each other pass with Schmidt helping Jenko with the academics and Jenko helping Schmidt with athletics. They become friends but also pretty terrible cops and when they are assigned to the Jump Street division a mix up in administration finds their roles reversed and Schmidt becomes popular while Jenko ends up hanging out with the nerds. Life lessons would probably be learned if any of this were serious but as it turns out it is really just very, very funny.
The original show, which I watched and loved when I was 11, was generally pretty serious and earnest in its dealing with high school issues of adolescence like drug addiction, suicide, alienation and even living with HIV. It was also pretty inherently silly as none of the actors could pass for high school kids to a blind person let alone a group of suspicious teens with fully functioning bullshit detectors. A serious movie could have been made about Jump Street but it would have been roughly as silly and been hamstrung by that. Here, the remake embraces the silliness wholeheartedly and in doing so brutally skewers not just the original concept but also the idea of remakes in general and all the flaws and issues that crop up with them.
In the most glorious case of lampshade hanging in the history of filmed entertainment, 21 Jump Street attacks stereotypes in movies, ridiculous action movie tropes, the aforementioned remake epidemic in Hollywood and the overly sentimental lessons learned from this kind of material. In a lesser script a lot of this would come across as cloying and too inside baseball but here it is delivered brilliantly and the audience is always in on the joke. This is not unlike the remakes of Starsky and Hutch and Green Hornet, both of which took otherwise serious dramas and turned them into comedy but this does so much more successfully. It is also similar in tone to the Brady Bunch Movie which was less of an earnest retelling of the show but rather a send up of it’s silliness. The difference here is that 21 Jump Street offers a Rated R version of the material and pulls no comedy punches whatsoever.
The comedy here is always on point and the prevailing sense throughout the entire film is that the writers (of which Jonah Hill is included) really get it and deliver it in as clever and hilarious way as possible. In some lesser comedies, this constant stream of genuinely funny material is hamstrung by a lack of character depth or real storytelling. That is not the case here as, even though the lessons about friendship and trust are played for laughs, the characters are not just the one dimensional stereotypes they start out as. This balance of sentimentality and irreverent comedy is as even and sure handed as the pacing of the movie which clips along at a brilliant pace that never drags nor does it ever short the film of the proper material.
The casting of the film is equally surefooted and perfect. Jonah Hill is the perfect Schmidt with just the right amount of insecurity and eventual confidence and does so in a realistic manner that doesn’t dismiss the insecurity just because he has managed some confidence. It is a nice blend that feels real and never forgets the character’s strengths and weaknesses. Channing Tatum is genuinely awesome here and I have to maybe rethink my attitude on him entirely. The perfect counterpoint to Schmidt, Jenko is endued with the right balance of confidence, disbelief, jealousy and a slow burning stupidity that defines him early on but proves to be marginally less true as the movie goes on. He is not the smartest guy ever but he isn’t nearly as dumb as everyone, including himself, thinks that he is. Both of these characters start off very cookie cutter at first but blossom into fleshed out people by the film’s end all without feeling manipulative or overly sentimental. This is not easy to do but the writers and actors make it look like it is.
The supporting cast is just as good as the leads with Dave Franco showing that he is just as good as his brother as drug dealer Eric who is not at all the stereotypical popular kid. Brie Larson likewise plays her love interest role with enough depth that she is not just some cookie cutter high school popular girl but a well rounded person who would actually be capable of falling for Schmidt and in turn be worth his attention in the first place. Nick Offerman is great in a small role as the pair’s original Captain and Rob Riggle is, as usual, quirky and hilarious as the school’s gym coach.
If there was a breakout performance, however, it would have to belong to Ice Cube who plays Jump Street’s Captain Dickson. His general look is reminiscent of Capt Fuller from the original series but his attitude and delivery is awesome and he delivers some of the film’s best dialogue and biggest laughs. Cube nails the role and plays it exactly right and it is a joy to watch.
Conclusion [10 out of 10]
There is really nothing bad I can say about 21 Jump Street. If you are easily offended by f-bombs and sex jokes then you may not like it. Also if you are overly sentimental about the original show then I could see not caring for it as well. In either of those scenarios, however, I still say you are missing out on a great comedy with flawless delivery and, in the case of resistant fans of the original, there are some cameos here that may very well be the best I have ever seen in any movie ever and you should really see it. I loved this movie and will be recommending it wholeheartedly forever.