It would have been impressive if the 21 Jump Street movie was any good. The fact that it’s flat-out great feels like showboating by directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller. The movie is raunchily hilarious while also being completely sweet and lovable, a balancing act so few studio comedies manage. And to top it all off the film is a vital part of the 21 Jump Street canon. This one has it all.
The premise of the film is the same as the 80s TV show that gave us Johnny Depp - 21 Jump Street houses a unique undercover squad made up of cops who play high school kids and bust up drug rings and the like. In the film Jump Street has been defunct for decades, but it’s being restarted (due to a lack of imagination, Nick Offerman’s Deputy Chief Hardy tells us) and fuck-up bike cops Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are assigned. At Jump Street they find a hard-assed, angry black Captain played with filthy abandon by Ice Cube, and at Sagan High they find a world where the familiar status quo has been turned upside down. The cool kids are environmentalists and lovers of diversity who have no time for sports. But they do have time to sell a dangerous new drug called Holy Fucking Shit.
There’s a lot that makes the film work, ranging from Lord and Miller’s loving comic touch and Michael Bacall’s incredibly funny script, but the big secret at the heart of 21 Jump Street is Channing Tatum. He is simply a comedic powerhouse, who plays both with and against his image with admirable restraint and humility. He doesn’t mug, but more importantly he’s not afraid of looking like an utter doofus. I’ve long been a fan of Tatum, ever since seeing him in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, but he has rarely been given roles that allow him to show his comedy chops or his humanity. In Jump Street he gets all of that.
Jonah Hill is good as well, but it feels like Tatum utterly overshadows him. In fact Hill’s best stuff is when he’s bouncing off his co-star - their chemistry is incredible, and I hope that whatever comes from this movie we get to see these guys as a comedy team again. Their relationship has real tenderness at its heart; they’re guys who knew each other in high school, where popular Tatum bullied loser Hill. They reconnected in the police academy, where they discovered how perfectly they filled in for each other’s weaknesses, and became strong friends. You believe that these two guys truly, completely love each other.
The film’s most brilliant conceit is a simple: because of a dumb mistake Tatum ends up in classes with the nerds and Hill ends up with the cool kids. Half of the fun of the movie is watching as these two deal with their own high school scars when forced to exchange roles.
Casting is strong across the board. Dave Franco is wonderful as the politically correct leader of the school drug ring while Rob Riggle is a blast as school coach. But the other big MVP behind Channing Tatum is Brie Larson, whose Molly is a humongously realized character. She’ll win your heart with her regular girl charm and sweet rapport with Hill. She’s absolutely incredible.
I know that many of you are having a hard time believing that this movie is excellent. Yes, the idea of an R-rated 21 Jump Street comedy is sort of fundamentally retarded, but the filmmakers wisely avoid going the parody route. This isn’t a film making fun of the original show, it’s a character based comedy with touches of awesome absurdism throughout. Lord and Miller are monsters when it comes to maintaining the balance between silly comedy and grounded, believable characters. You’ll walk out of 21 Jump Street wondering why everybody doesn’t make em like this, since it seems so easy when Lord and Miller are doing it. They've become the new masters of mixing dick jokes and heartfelt niceness - and they show a real facility for action scenes, as well, including a very funny escalating car chase.
One thing I fear about 21 Jump Street is that moment six months in the future when people see it on home video and are surprised at how good it is. Don’t be surprised - I am telling you right now that this is a hilarious movie that made my chest hurt from laughing so much. It’s a laugh riot, a gutbuster, a laugh a minute, etc - whatever Earl Dittman and Shawn Edwards spew about movies to get quoted on TV ads - but more than that it’s a really well-made movie about characters you’re going to absolutely adore. This is 21 Jump Street's premise seen through the prism of Hot Fuzz. It's a movie you’ll be quoting for years to come but - and this is so much more important - a movie you’ll want to revisit again and again because you like hanging out with these characters so much. The movie ends with a tease for a sequel, and I hope they greenlight that motherfucker ASAP.