DIRECTED BY PHIL LORD and CHRIS MILLER
STARRING: JONAH HILL, CHANNING TATUM, BRIE LARSON, ICE CUBE, ELLIE KEMPER, DAVE FRANCO, ROB RIGGLE with CHRIS PARNELL, PETER DeLUISE and JOHNNY DEPP
There was a time when I ranked High-School movies based on how they handled Senior Prom. I thought I was past that time, more so because I thought I stopped watching High-School comedies for the heck of it, but then comes '21 Jump Street.’ While a film like ‘Superbad’ and, more recently, ‘Easy A’ could do away with the whole idea of prom happening, '21 Jump Street’ keeps it at the heart of a sequence. I think about it, it kind of makes sense. Prom’s a place where people go crazy, spirits soar high, people go high on spirits. That, or a newfound drug by the name of H.F.S. – an acronym I don’t even have to expand on.
Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum) have been together for as long as jocks had coexisted with boys in retainers. They bond on rejection and an odd sort of concurrence in sense of humour that has happened in any movie that has ever featured Jonah Mister-Bold-Letters Hill. Have you ever thought about it? The only way to be friends with a Jonah Hill character is to be as dirty as he can be. It once was a Seth Rogen thing. He had rendered himself versatile after.
Together, Schmidt and Jenko speak a lot of words that have either four, five or twelve letters in them. There’s not as much inventiveness in humour, but Hill and Tatum have enough command over timing and share a decent enough chemistry to make the buddy-system work. Did I mention that they end up training at the same police academy and become partners in the force later on? They’re given bicycles instead of patrol cars – which is the thing about an action comedy, I guess. Where you lack in action, you write some lines; you make Jonah Hill say them.
I had a problem in that I found I'm so used to Jonah Hill that I was dying to have Tatum cut loose and let some lines fly, if not take entire sequences in hand. Hill is too much to take. The man is a spoilsport, I’m not even kidding. Let me give you an example. There’s a scene where Jenko tells a certain individual that he’d ‘beat his member off with both hands’, which is forced humour at its peak and yet works because Tatum keeps his face intact and maintains a level of innocence to render it believable. The man he addresses and some cohorts of his think he’s mad. Schmidt, a.k.a. Jonah Hill, has to step in to clarify. He does what is called the Jonah Hill routine – which means he explains exactly what it means. It’s funny because he can be nonchalant about a clarification as petty as this. It works because he’s Jonah Hill.
This is a reason that, I find, is becoming unconvincing to me as time goes by. Soon, Mr. Hill would reach what I’d like to call the Michael Cera stage, which is a point of no return. Better comics have known better than to head there. It’s a destructive place to be – for themselves, and for humour in itself.
Anyway, in what’s perhaps the funniest scene in the movie, Capt. Hardy (Nick Offerman) tells Schmidt and Jenko that they don’t have what it takes to hit the street and are, literally, sent back to school. Capt. Dickson (Ice Cube) takes charge. He’s the stereotype of a foul-mouthing Black cop stereotype who has a few funny lines to deliver. Taking his own course of time through digs at pop-references, he tells the two of them about how a new drug had been found in circulation in the school they’re to enroll in. Their task is simple – “infiltrate the dealers, find the supplier.” Schmidt and Jenko become Brad and Doug McQuaid in an abandoned Korean church. They might as well have been baptized.
Like any movie with multiple identities, ’21 Jump Street’ sets out to play. On top of the alias, we have another switch. Brad and Doug (whoever is whoever) are interchanged – they’d now have to undergo the additional ordeal of taking each other’s classes. What's sad is that it never ups the game. Jenko gets Chemistry with Ms. Griggs (Ellie Kemper) who, when he tells her he’s got to go to the bathroom, she feels the need to too. And Schmidt gets drama, ironic as it might be. They dread their classes, but they make peace with them anyway – with benefits. To Jenko, it’s friendship with a group of science geeks. Schmidt gets Molly (Brie Larson), who looks a little more realistic than High-School, for a change. Then there’s Eric (Dave Franco) who’s the new kind of ‘cool’ and the gang that Molly’s a part of, which Schmidt infiltrates en route to going for gold.
Oh, and did I tell you that reliving high-school has the two cops go déjà vu on a popularity contest? That, a test of faith, an empty chase, a severed penis and Johnny Depp constitute the latter half of the film, which ends with the two cops doing what they had initially set out to do – to recite the Miranda rights right.
Where buddy-cop-comedies are concerned, there have been too many. ‘the Other Guys’ with Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell, Kevin Smith's disaster flick ‘Cop Out’ with Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan – we even had an 80s TV-to-screen adaptation in form of Todd Phillips’ ‘Starsky and Hutch’ (Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller) – all in under a decade. While it’s fun in case of an action-hero-comic pair and we have the action star trying to come down to the comic’s sensibilities, it’s better when it works. Wilson and Stiller were a gem of a pair, that way. Even Wilson’s successful camaraderie with Jackie Chan in ‘Shanghai Noon' comes to mind.
Which brings me back to where I started. Jonah Hill could even be a bad casting option in that he’s a show stealer. You put him in a movie, you put him alongside someone like Russell Brand in 'Get him to the Greek', who can stretch him on his own ground. Not Tatum, even if he’s not half-bad. He’s quite the revelation, actually.
In that case, I’d have to stick to my original point – not Jonah Hill. You have the right to cast him in your movie, he has the right to take charge. I reserve the right to remain disappointed – with an evil smile at how Johnny Depp got shot.