On paper, “21 Jump Street” was not an enticing proposition. A reboot of a 1980s TV series with a ludicrous premise — fresh-faced cops go undercover as high school students. Produced by Neal Moritz, a man whose last attempt at an action-comedy reboot of a famous property was the dreadful “The Green Hornet.” Directed by two first-time live-action feature directors. Written by the man behind “Project X.” And starring Jonah Hill, coming off a terrible R-rated comedy flop, in “The Sitter,” and Channing Tatum, a man whose previous turns weren’t so much performed as whittled out of wood.
And yet, “21 Jump Street” was a success, opening to a hugely impressive $35 million over the weekend. And more importantly, it was also really, really good, arguably the best studio movie of this young year to date, and one of the funniest comedies in years. So what happened? What separated the film, directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, and written by Michael Bacall, from the dozens of other R-rated comedies in the last few years? The film’s certainly got problems (a drawn-out ending, a weak villain), but for the most part, it works like gangbusters, and we’ve gone in depth, to examine why the film is such an unlikely triumph. Spoilers ahead.
1) Wastes Little Time, Develops Its Leads Fast & Dives Right Into The Story
While generally speaking, you’ll hear us advocate for character and story development, there are always exceptions to the rule. And “21 Jump Street” is one of them. The script by Michael Bacall, from a story hatched with Jonah Hill, opens with a compact, concise ten minutes that essentially is wrapped up in one line: “Wanna be friends?” Recognizing that Schmidt’s booksmarts would meld perfect with his own physicality, Jenko extends the olive branch, the two race through Academy training thanks to a hilarious montage, and then we’re dropped right into their careers as rookie cops. While we’ll get bits and pieces filled in as the movie continues, Bacall and directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller choose to go straight to the plot and comedy, and it’s a smart play, one that establishes the film as a raucous ride, right from the start.
2) A Lean & Satisfying Script
That opening ten minutes are a good indicator of how the film as a whole will play out: unusually for most modern comedies, there’s not a lot of fat on the bones. Even the best of the Judd Apatow stable (“Knocked Up,” “Bridesmaids”) feel a little overlong and sluggish in places, but “21 Jump Street” moves at a crackerjack pace throughout. It digresses occasionally, but those threads never feel indulgent, and generally the more leftfield moments are working towards some greater purpose in terms of setting up character or plot: even the drug freakout sequence pays off when Molly blows Schmidt and Jenko’s cover at the worst possible moment. There’s a tightness to Bacall’s scripting that’s reminiscent of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s films — unsurprising when you consider that Bacall co-wrote “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World.” They all know that when the set-up and the punchline are really in harmony, you don’t just laugh, but you feel inherently satisfied. A case in point…
3) The Brilliant And Hilarious Car Chase Sequence
The easy way to take “21 Jump Street” would’ve been to go down the action route, packing it with explosions, while Tatum and Hill throw quips back and forth. Instead, the film wisely prefers to send up the genre instead, all while playing within the framework, and when it comes time to the centerpiece action sequence, “21 Jump Street” gleefully subverts convention at the same time. Running afoul of a motorcycle gang, Schmidt and Jenko wind up in a freeway chase. For the duo who expect their careers to be like what they’ve seen on TV, things don’t quite go as planned. Directors Lord and Miller make the sequence a showcase for their comic timing — something that approaches a “Looney Tunes” sensibility here — as two trucks (incuding one hilariously stenciled “Oil & Fuel”) come in path of the bullets and bikes and…nothing happens. Jenko and Schmidt are baffled, but when it comes to the innocent looking chicken truck…the audience set up with two missed explosions knows what’s coming. That it’s still insanely funny is all due to the work of Lord and Miller who show that sometimes the buildup, is even better than the punchline.
4) It Has Fun Redefining The High School Stereotypes
As we noted in our feature on high school movies last week, the genre is filled with easily identifiable stereotypes from film to film. But again, in a quest to keep things fresh and to emphasize the fish-out-of-water situation Schmidt and Jenko find themselves in, Bacall and Hill create a high school world that has changed dramatically. Environmentalism and tolerance are the tickets to the top of the high school popularity chain, while aggressive machismo of the jock crowd will put you on the outside. So too is school spirit (in a nice little character detail, Dave Franco’s drug dealing Eric is not only using the yearbook room to do business, he’s actually editing it too). Suddenly, Schmidt finds his honest awkwardness as an asset in this world, while Jenko has to completely readjust to not being immediately accepted. Indeed, the high school world presented here is how many of us would find it returning back to the hallways of our old alma mater — surreal and strange, with a whole new set of rules. The filmmakers understand that, and use it to great comic effect.
5) It’s Genuinely And Consistently Surprising
Some would have you believe that audiences only ever want variations on what they’ve seen before, repeated endlessly; something familiar, something comforting. We’d suggest that audiences are actually crying out for the opposite, and what’s nice about Lord and Miller’s film is that it consistently defies your expectations. We’ve highlighted two of the best examples above, in the car chase gag and the portrayal of the high schoolers, but it’s consistent across the film. From the canny way that Jenko and Schmidt have their high school roles reversed to the Johnny Depp cameo (admittedly, that was spoiled for many by the trades months ago, but the audience we saw gasped in shock, and then again when he’s brutally shot to pieces), from Jenko vomiting after a gunfight to Rob Riggle ending the film with his own dick in his mouth. You might be able to predict the broad sweep of the film, but scene by scene, all kinds of surprises and overturned cliches await, and it makes the film feel genuinely fresh.
6) It’s Self Aware Without Becoming Too Meta
Part of the reason many have been wary about the film is that it seems to be indicative of the worst of Hollywood reboot culture. But the filmmakers don’t just manage to successfully revamp the cops-in-high-school concept, but they also poke fun at themselves for even attempting it. From Nick Offerman’s Sgt telling the central pair that the undercover program’s being revived due to a “lack of imagination,” to Chris Parnell’s drama teacher announcing “That’s the end of the second act!” at… the end of the second act, it’s full of neat, knowing references without alienating a wider audience (Offerman’s “37 Jump Street” gag plays to everyone who knows the title). And like “Hot Fuzz,” easily the closest comparison point, it knows the genre in and out, celebrating and sending up the cliches, and placing more emphasis on its central buddy bromance than anything else.
7) It’s Very Sweet And Never Mean-Spirited
For an action-comedy, it’s quite rare that the stakes come not from the drug-bust aspect of the plot (which is, let’s face it, mainly a peg from which to hang everything else), but from the characters. Hill and Tatum are an unlikely pairing, but their friendship feels genuine from the first, and you genuinely care about their relationship. Hill’s romance with Brie Larson’s character is also nicely drawn — she’s out of his league, but you also buy that she might be drawn to him. Indeed, she’s a more rounded female character than you get in most films of this type, and that’s true in many instances: Dave Franco, for instance, gives a surprising level of nuance to his drug dealer: he’s not a bad kid, he’s actually generous and kind, he’s just making bad decisions. There’s an admirable open-mindedness across the film, especially when put up against the sometimes conservative nature of, say, the Apatow films; Larson and Franco’s casual relationship is dealt in a very matter-of-fact way, and Tatum and Hill’s sweetly sincere relationship, even down to them “fingering” each other’s mouths, never descends into the gay panic jokes that lesser films would have included.
8) Channing Tatum
That central relationship is the absolute heart of the film, and while Hill deserves all kinds of credit (there’s some really terrific acting from the Oscar nominee as he finally gets the popularity he never had in high school), it’s Channing Tatum who’s the real MVP of the film. And believe us, we’d never have thought we’d be writing that sentence a year ago. The actor has been picked out by serious talents like Michael Mann, Kimberley Peirce, Kevin Macdonald and Steven Soderbergh, but he gets by far his best showcase to date here. He’s entirely endearing in a part that both plays to his lunk-headed dreamboat persona and turns it upside down; there’s no vanity to his performance, no desire to look cool, although he’s capable of doing that when the action kicks in. He’s also extremely and disarmingly funny in the film, showing a surprising capacity for comedy, and not in a “Vin Diesel looking after kids!” way, but with deceptively graceful timing, or just by launching ass akimbo into things. By pulling this off, he’s won over an enormous number of the doubters, ourselves included.
9) The Cast Is Stuffed With Comic Ringers
While it’s undoubtedly Tatum and Hill’s film, the breadth of the ensemble is hugely impressive; so much so that arguably the biggest problem is that some just don’t get enough to do. Aside from Brie Larson and Dave Franco, who we’ve mentioned above, you get Ice Cube’s hilarious permanently-on-the-brink-of-bursting-a-blood-vessel turn, every tough no-nonsense police captain you’ve ever seen combined and multiplied. You’ve got Chris Parnell doing his Dr. Spaceman thing, Jake Johnson’s amusingly harried school principal, Ellie Kemper’s science teacher wrestling with her lust for Jenko, Nick Offerman deadpanning his way through one of the funniest scenes of the movie, Johnny Simmons pulling off another one-scene wonder and Dakota Johnson, Rye Rye and Valerie Tian being badass as the rival undercovers (we would not be adverse to a spin-off). We know that there’s an awful lot of material on the cutting room floor — one of the reasons it sometimes feels like certain actors get shorter shrift than you’d like. But no film has suffered from having too many funny people in it, if they’re used right, and here they are all spot on.
10) They Got The Right Guys
We’ve given Neal H. Moritz a lot of shit over the years, principally because he’s given us a lot of shit over the years: recent output includes “Made of Honour,” “The Bounty Hunter,” “The Green Hornet” and “Battle: Los Angeles.” But credit where credit is due, he absolutely hired the right people here, and seemingly saw that they got to do what they want to do. We’ve spoken about writer Michael Bacall’s work at length already (and we do find it bizarre that he could come up with such a lean, likable, funny script and something as repellent as “Project X” at the same time), but directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller deserve the lion’s share of the credit. Anyone who saw their feature debut, the animated flick “Cloudy With Chance Of Meatballs,” knew they were ones to watch, but now they’re two-for-two, and there are few talents in the comedy world that we’re more excited about. There’s a hugely impressive economy of storytelling throughout the film (editor Joey Negron, of “Transformers” 2 & 3, deserves a shout-out too), they shoot the action neatly and excitingly, they’re inventive when needed, and more importantly, they’ve got killer timing. Their next project is, of all things, a “Lego” movie, but given that they’re turned a kids’ picture book and an 80s TV show into minor comedy classics, they get the benefit of the doubt.