Phil Lord's and Chris Miller's 21 Jump Street
Here's the link to the published version of my review in my column at The Richmond Examiner:
21 Jump Street (2012)
“21 Jump Street” is yet another example of one of those films where I had one set of expectations going in, but left pleasantly surprised. What happens sometimes is that the trailer won’t make the film look funny at all, perhaps because it isn’t or, such as happened in this case, they saved the good material for when people actually go see the film, and as it turns out, there was more than enough of that good material to go around.
The film, based upon the 1987 TV series of the same name, revolves around two cops, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum), who knew each other in high school and then ended up training at the police academy together. After their first attempt at an arrest goes bad, they are placed in an undercover unit with their mission being to bring down a drug ring.
Once inside, they attempt to find the source of a new synthetic drug that has already caused a student’s death. This leads them to Eric (Dave Franco), one of the distributors. As Schmidt, not used to being considered one of the cool kids, becomes good friends with Eric in order to find the supplier of the drug, Jenko goes about the mission in a different way using a wiretap provided by his new chemistry friends in an attempt to gather the needed information.
What helps make the humor work so well is the fact that the writer, Michael Bacall, makes no illusions that his screenplay is original. In fact, he takes time to poke fun at the fact that this whole film is merely recycling an idea from the 80s. He even has his characters point out how they thought there’d be more chases and explosions in their line of work as policemen, and go figure, later in the film, we get a long chase sequence with a hilarious series of near-explosions before a completely unexpected one occurs.
What also helps make it work is that it’s just plain funny. The jokes are set up really well, such as the aforementioned chase and near-explosions. There’s also a sequence of the two having to sample the drug that’s spreading around the school that leads to a series of stages that the drug takes them through with hilarious consequences.
Aside from one really crude joke near the end of the film, the level of humor manages to stay at a really good level. It would have been easy for Bacall to sink the film into Sandler humor territory, but luckily he almost entirely resists that urge. Bacall has already proven that he can be a pretty funny guy when it comes to writing, having co-written the screenplay to the great film “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.”
While the film itself was an unexpected surprise, what was perhaps an even bigger surprise was to find Channing Tatum in a good film for once. I usually find myself having to berate his “acting,” but here, he actually does quite well with the comedic material, and he even has great chemistry with recent Academy Award nominee Jonah Hill. Tatum has been in one bad movie after another, but they’ve been almost entirely romance or action. Perhaps he’s finally found what he should have been doing all along.
The film comes from directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who also teamed up for the so-so animated film “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.” That had also been their only directors credit before this, making it quite impressive that their first live-action outing turned out as well as it did. They handle the action sequences in a clear and comprehensible manner, which is something that even the most experienced directors still seem to have trouble with nowadays.
If this film is any indication, these two have a future in directing live-action, and indeed, this film does kind of leave it open for a sequel, something I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing. Because of Bacall’s skill at writing great comedic material and Lord’s and Miller’s talent behind the camera, “21 Jump Street” became more than what it originally appeared to be, which is a surprise I’m always grateful for. 3/4 stars.
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