The best thing about 21 Jump Street, an adaptation of a 1980s TV series, is its knowing humour. This film isn’t afraid to make fun of itself, Hollywood, the derivative nature of modern filmmaking, high school movies, the youth of today, and the people in the audience. And it really works. This is the first truly funny comedy of 2012.
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as two young police officers, Schmidt and Jenko. They didn’t get along in school. Schmidt studied hard but wasn’t very popular. Jenko deliberately didn’t try when it came to the academic side of life but was at the top of the social tree. As teenagers, they were polar opposites. As members of the police force, they discover that they complement each other well. Tatum has the muscle power, the figure and the looks, and Hill has the brains.
After failing to correctly arrest a group of drug dealers in a family park, the two are sent back to high school in an undercover mission. They need to find the dealers and the supplier of a dangerous drug that has become a new craze amongst the students. But when they get to the school, and try to slot back into the old roles and cliques they remember, they come a bit unstuck. Jenko is confused to discover that the popular kids in school now care about their studies. They disapprove of homophobia and are passionate about equality and the environment. ‘Fuck you, Glee’, says Jenko, when musing about the possible cause of all this inclusivity and tolerance.
This aspect of the film wisely acknowledges how out of touch Hollywood high school movies can be. By the time the social and cultural values of school students are recognised by adult filmmakers, they have changed. High school flicks too often slip into the habit of portraying those who want to learn as ‘Nerds’ and teenage homosexuals as objects of depression who have to suffer intense bullying. Although such things sadly still go on in secondary schools, it is true that today’s youth are far more tolerant, accepting and sensitive than some adults give them credit for.
It is discovered very quickly that the leader of the cool kids, Eric, played by Dave Franco, is actually the school’s main drug dealer, but our two immature cops struggle to find the supplier.
The humour is coarse and, in some instances, a little too extreme. There are two jokes I didn’t like. One involved someone getting stabbed at a party, and the other depicted a man trying to pick up his severed penis off the ground with his teeth. But, leaving those aside, 21 Jump Street is a mad, frequently hilarious ride. The jokes are deliberately ridiculous, and the crude language won’t endear it to people like, for example, Peter Hitchens or Ann Widdecombe, but the film isn’t meant for them. It’s meant for the generation who have grown up with rude irreverent comedies such as Superbad and The Hangover. But although 21 Jump Street fits into the same genre as those two pictures, it has some vital differences that work in its favour. The writing is far more intelligent and socially perceptive than both of those pictures. The film also has heart, warmth and friendship at its core, whereas The Hangover movies celebrate hate, nastiness and discrimination.
It’s baffling that screenwriter Michael Bacall has managed to have two movies released in the same month that are so far apart on the quality spectrum. His profoundly unfunny and sickeningly misogynist party film Project X is currently giving audiences a cinematic lobotomy in multiplexes across the country. But 21 Jump Street is all the things Project Xisn’t. It condemns hateful attitudes towards women and gay people, it has a story (albeit a deliberately far-fetched one) and, best of all, it’s actually funny.
Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who brought us colourful animation Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, give the film a terrific visual energy and kinetic style. It’s fast moving and as the story whips along, the laughs come in by the dozen. They also bring out some great comic performances from Jonah Hill (a man who, up until this point in time, had never made me laugh) and the drop-dead-handsome Channing Tatum, who regularly gets a beating from critics (rather unfairly, in my opinion) for his acting. I’ve always rather liked him, and here he proves he can do comedy very well indeed.
It isn’t a masterpiece like last year’s Bridesmaids, but 21 Jump Street takes risks and comes up triumphant. Some jokes work more than others, but the whole thing is such an entertaining experience I’m ready to forgive it the odd limp gag. It’s taken a while for the genre of the crude comedy to become genuinely funny, but wait has been, for the most part, worth it.
21 Jump Street (2012), directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, is distributed in the UK by Sony Pictures, Certificate 15.