Film Review – 21 Jump Street
It’s not a new idea to say Hollywood is unoriginal. Everything old is new again, as everything is either a sequel or a remake. One of the most popular approaches is to convert TV shows into movies. Generally, they have been turned into over the top comedy (like Starsky & Hutch) or overly dramatic fare (like Miami Vice), with neither approach replicating the tone of the original series. With 21 Jump Street, the original tone of the show might still be off, but the movie strikes a good balance between being approachable to the original audience as well as a new generation.
The plot revolves around high school nerd Schmidt (played by Jonah Hill) and jock Jenko (played by Channing Tatum), who, upon their graduation, find themselves as outsiders. After running into each other a few years later while in the police academy, they strike up a friendship. After their first bust goes wrong, they are sent into a program where they go undercover as brothers in a high school, in hopes of breaking up an Ecstasy ring that has led to some teenagers dying.
The film is directed by Chris Miller and Phil Lord, and they join a recent trend of animated film directors transitioning to live action (most notably, Brad Bird with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and Andrew Stanton with John Carter). They are coming off of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and seem like naturals, as the final project here is incredibly polished. If I didn’t know this was their live action debut, I never would’ve guessed. Additionally, the film is co-written by Hill and executive produced by both Hill and Tatum, and should help them reach new levels of stardom.
Clearly the most important element for this film’s success is the chemistry between Hill and Tatum. Jonah Hill has consistently been one of the best comedic actors for at least the past half-decade. This role is no exception, as he brings both great comedic timing and lots of good energy. Personally, I think Channing Tatum is an underappreciated actor. A large part of the problem is his project selection (with films such as G.I. Joe and The Dilemma), but if you look at the projects on paper you can understand why he signed up for them. His performance here should sway some of his detractors, as he exudes a lot of heart and complements Hill’s over the top antics.
Fans of the original series will be excited to see cameos from the original cast. I won’t say who is involved, but several original actors pop up at various points. Additionally, there are a lot of fun cameos that are unrelated to the original series. Actors such as Jake Johnson (The New Girl), Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation), and Rob Riggle (Step Brothers) steal their scenes but don’t distract from the plot.
The film strikes a nice balance between parody and homage. It makes fun of tropes such as cops going undercover in high school and general action film clichés like the angry black police captain, but it also creates a meaningful relationship between Hill and Tatum as they become more than just pretend brothers. There are flashes of genuine concern and love amongst the comedy that reminded me of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s and Seth Rogen’s relationship in 50/50.
TV-to-film conversions are a challenging genre, with few breakout successes to be seen. The biggest successes have been the Star Trek and Mission: Impossible series. Generally the conversions have been one-and-dones, so there is a lot of history that runs from modest success (SWAT) to disappointment (The A-Team) for 21 Jump Street to contend with. Given its low $42 million budget, things are looking promising. The marketing for the movie was also pretty well done. The trailers are entertaining but don’t reveal many of the jokes, with the majority of the footage coming from the first 15 minutes of the movie. It is nice to go into a movie and not have the best parts of it already spoiled.
My biggest issue with the film was the pacing; I found it to be a little inconsistent. The film probably could’ve had 5-10 minutes trimmed down and been a little bit tighter, as at times the Ecstasy backstory kind of gets lost in the chase for laughs. Also, while I enjoyed Hill’s and Tatum’s chemistry, I think their storyline got a little clichéd at times as their characters re-experience high school. For a film that does such a good job of skewering conventions, this is a shock.
Still, while the film isn’t without its flaws, they are few and far between. It is entertaining, and achieves a nice balance between honoring the original series and creating a new chapter for another generation. Odds are that this won’t be the last time we see the pairing of Hill and Tatum.