Despite my earnest appreciation of Johnny Depp, I don’t think I’ve seen a single episode of the original 21 Jump Street TV series, so from a cheap nostalgia standpoint I’m not the target audience for its remake 21 years later.
In recent years, however, I’ve been a strong and vocal supporter of the children’s animated movie Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs thanks to its gently loony sense of humor and better-than-its-genre comedic timing. So I’m happy to report that Cloudy co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller have maintained that same level of well-crafted mayhem and hit-more-than-miss hilarity in their very R-rated and kiddie-inappropriate Jump Street revision.
Granted, Jump Street’s co-directors Lord and Miller have some solid resources to work with including a snappily weird script by co-star Jonah Hill and writer Michael Bacall (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Project X) and a well-stocked supporting cast that runs the ha-ha gamut from Ice Cube and Nick Offerman to Ellie Kemper, Rob Riggle, and Jake M. Johnson as various police superiors and public-school staff and gives Brie Larson and Dave “the Younger” Franco a decent showcase as the film’s “real” high-school students. (Franco especially, like his older brother, has a wry, laid-back magnetism.) But best of all, the filmmakers have a new-found comedic wellspring in the inspired pairing of the always amusing Hill with Channing Tatum.
To be fair, Tatum’s done solid work in sappy dramas like Dear John and The Vow and action films like The Eagle, and yes even before Jump Street, he showed fine comedic chops in The Dilemma last year, though thankfully few people saw the otherwise deeply unfunny Vince Vaughn vehicle.
Unfortunately for him, Tatum was thrust upon us around the same time as Sam Worthington, so naturally the two became entangled in viewers’ minds as two sides of the same cinder block. But Tatum appears to have a lot more going on than Worthington—there’s a paved-over layer of sensibility and sensitivity that serves him well in both drama and comedy.
While I dread the notion of Hollywood grabbing hold of Jump Street’s surprisingly successful Hill-Tatum duet and running it into the ground in a series of half-baked comedies in the next couple years, for now the two work well together because they’re both needy whiners. As a pair of Yin-and-Yang young cop partners, nerdy Hill is the socially and physically inept brains while ex-jock Tatum provides the intelligence-free brawn.
However when teamed up they still add up to less than one competent cop, so both are shuffled off to the Jump Street undercover high-school program. Shoved back into high school Hill manically and aggressively plays his character’s neuroses out front with the bitter, cutting wit of the downtrodden, while Tatum hides his self-doubts behind the letter-jacket bluff of the All-American winner. (Hill may have co-written the script, and in Lord and Miller’s hands his usually clever drop-ins carry even more zing, but it’s Tatum who lumbers away with all the best lines.)
The movie’s premise—undercover cops posing as high-school students to bring down an extra-curricular drug ring—could have (should have) fallen flat at nearly every turn. But Hill and Bacall’s script revels in deadpan, self-deprecating meta jokes (the ironic slow-mo heroic swagger shot is overused so many times, it becomes a running joke about its overuse), and sly twists on expectations. (Tatum’s once-popular dumb jock finds himself a stranger in a strange land where the cool kids are now studious, eco-conscious geek lords; and vehicles fail to explode on cue during de rigor action-film car chases.)
For all the cheeky outlandishness, Lord and Miller don’t push the humor envelope as much as bend it—Jump Street has plenty of naughty gags, but it isn’t a deeply, dangerously edge-funny comedy a la Adam McKay or Jody Hill (both of whom took much more vicious and daring swipes at cop movies in The Other Guys and Observe and Report).
Instead of dark inspiration or truly ingenious mania, it sports a more palpably wacky flavor of comedic subversion. Grown-up raunchy, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, but more often nicely amusing, 21 Jump Street is just odd and silly enough to keep you giggling, but–like Tatum’s lunk-headed character–it’s not quite sharp enough to do any real damage.