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21 Jump Street

21 Jump Street

They haven't aged a day, have they, like the immortals they deserve to be

dirs: Phil Lord and Chris Miller

File this under “should not have worked, but somehow did.” If such a file exists. Which it probably doesn’t.

In truth they could have just called this flick A Couple of Dicks Go Back to School and had exactly the same story without any of the Jump Street references or cameos, and it probably would have succeeded just as well, though it probably wouldn’t have made as much money.

I freely admit I was a fan of the show as a kid, and watched its first four years religiously, as in, always on the Sabbath. Loved the show, loved how moralising and try-hard it was, loved especially the various depictions of the teen experience forced through the filter of episodic police procedural television, with its “I learned something today” consistency. It was very of its time, dealing with the horrors of white kids using drugs, the rise of AIDS, the eternal tensions between parents, teachers and kids, and funky hairstyles. At least, at first, it was one of the only bright spots in that dark age known as the 1980s.

Nothing except eternity lasts forever, and even that the quantum physicists are always trying to fuck with, so Jump Street came and went, all the other actors went back to the obscurity they so richly deserved, and Johnny Depp went on to become the most powerful and highest paid actor in human history.

Time passed, and the kind of shit-eating creativity-free movie producers who think anything that exists should only exist as an amalgam of something else, “It’s like Schindler’s List meets the Pussycat Dolls” or “It’s like Pulp Fiction crossed with Spongebob Squarepants!”, decided this needed to be remade. Good for us, I guess.

Instead of following the template of the tv show, it mocks it entirely, creates its own dynamic between two leads completely unlike any of the characters from the show, and goes off on its own course, without a hint of seriousness or faux gravitas.

What’s strangest is that the two leads, Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum) don’t just seem like young adults returning to school, they act, for our benefit in the audience, like two people who were cryogenically frozen for a few decades in order to seem like naifs in a contemporary American high school.

Their headquarters is the deconsecrated chapel, like in the tv show, but this time, to be more contemporary, I guess, the church is a Korean church, with a statue of a plaintive Korean Jesus. He was Korean, right? Of course He was. Don’t you remember the kimchi and samgyeopsal served at the Last Supper? Of course you don’t, you godless heathen. One upset character implores the Korean Jesus for divine aid, referring to him openly as such, by saying “Help me Korean Jesus!”

Ask and ye shall receive. Obviously, there’s not going to be a single serious moment in a flick like this, and nor should there be. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum may be reasonably young guys, but no-one except other characters in a movie is going to mistake them for teenagers. Their boss, played by excellent rapper but terrible actor Ice Cube, can’t even make acting angry seem convincing, but all the same everyone’s wearily asserting the clichés of the buddy cop movie even as their in a buddy cop movie, so he’s playing to type. He sends them along to a local high school where a new designer drug has killed a white boy, hence now it’s considered a serious problem.

This completely fictional drug, called HFS for short, is very powerful, and for convenient reasons, appears to be produced from the school itself. So it becomes incumbent upon these two lummoxes to go undercover and find the source of all this horror.

In the same way that every filmmaker and screenwriter tries to relive their horrible high school experiences through fiction in order to somehow get it right, thus rewriting their own decades-old humiliations, Schmidt and Jenko get to go back and do things differently. Jenko is a tall, handsome idiot who’s good at the physical stuff of being a cop, and Schmidt is a short, very short insecure dweeb who can pass the written component of the police work. Smushed together into one body they’d probably make the most superbly perfect super cop since Robocop. But until such time as such technology is invented, and the legalities of smushing people into one body are worked out, they are imperfect beings who need to work together to achieve their goals.

So, not to over-complicate things, Jenko’s was a popular jock, Schmidt an unpopular nerd. By going back to high school, they expect to fulfil the same roles. Of course, the first day back they realise, with much perplexity, that their stereotypes no longer apply. They don’t even recognise the classifications, the subcultures, the tribes any longer, as if they’ve changed that much in the last seven years.

And the kids are all gay! And they all care about the environment! And none of them call people on their phones, they only text!

Is it a stretch to say that Jenko and Schmidt are meant to be stand-ins for an audience potentially with many more decades on them, expressing their and our incredulity at the kids of today? Guys that young blaming the horrible tv show Glee for the metrosexuality of today’s youth and bellowing the contemporary equivalent of “Get off my lawn!” may not make a lot of chronological sense, but it’s meant to reassure us oldies that things be screwy today, not like yesterday.

Even though one’s meant to be smart, and the other not, they’re both idiots, really. They even fuck up their undercover identities, so the dumb one has to take the advanced classes, and the uncool one has to hang with the cool kids. What a radical reversal of outrageous fortune! None of this should matter, but it does, because it makes the impossible possible: it makes Jonah Hill, someone who I cannot goddamn stand, mildly tolerable, and it makes Channing Tatum seem like someone who can act AND be a hefty slice of beefcake at the same time.

Other characters regularly point out how old both leads look, and none of it is meant to seem like it’s even mildly plausible.

But is it funny? That’s the crux. And it is, because it’s gleefully profane, determined to be vulgar, and incapable of generating a single moment of seriousness. Great moments like the two undercover officers tripping out of their minds after being compelled to take the new wonder drug are funny, but it’s just as funny to watch someone argue that not punching a black, gay fellow student would have been homophobic.

As much fun as the flick has bringing up cop show clichés and tweaking them (like the extended car chase towards the end, what with its multiple opportunities for explosions that defy convention), I don’t think most of the humour comes from the show’s origins. Sure, there are the cameos, but they don’t play a big part of the script or the screen time. One of the cameos is just that, one of the show’s original actors appearing on a television screen in the back ground. Holly Johnson gets a tiny part as an officer in charge of impounded cars (for which they have to pay homage to the Ford Mustang Tommy Hanson used to drive), but that’s it.

Seriously, that’s it. No-one else. Nuh uh, nada.

Just the two heroic leads fighting crime, fighting off their urges, fighting off horny teachers, and fighting off the urge to act like total dicks towards each other. Apart they might not be much, but together they make a half-decent crime fighter fighting crime one hilariously botched investigation at a time.

And how about that Dave Franco, as one of the potential cool kids/villains? Without knowing a thing about him or his existence, I figured out he had to be James Franco’s brother, just sleazier looking. And what a comic peach he is.

This is not a high achieving comedy. The laughs are lazy, low-hanging fruit all the way round, much like the Hangover movies. But it works well enough, and doesn’t take itself seriously or slowly (the rapid pace keeps things buoyant even when it’s not splitting your goddamn sides), and that helps matters in an agreeable time-killing way.

7 times I know how shitty it looks, but you can’t blame me or skinnier Jonah Hill if you don’t like it out of 10

“Hey. Hey! Stop fucking with Korean Jesus. He ain't got time for your problems.” - *sigh* none of the Jesuses do – 21 Jump Street