A reworking of the 1980s television series borrows the name but brings the laughs in a film that is nothing like what you will expect it to be.
As regular readers of 80s Bits will know, the 1980s is a mine of rolled gold for remake material. From the wonderful TRON: Legacy, the woeful Clash of the Titans and Conan the Barbarian and the troubling The A-Team, recapturing the trends of a bygone era have served as a substitute for creating a meaningful post-1990s culture of any consequence. Certainly in terms of box office push, we are back to a place of escalating budgets and diminishing returns both creatively and financially. Which is why it is refreshing when something like 21 Jump Street comes along, taking the legacy of a bygone era and crafting something that lives in the now.
Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are from opposite ends of the social spectrum during high school, but once they go through the police academy together, they find that their friendship is mutually beneficial, with Schmidt bringing the smarts and Jenko the braun. Failing at every attempt at police procedure, they are sent to do undercover work under Captain Dickson (Ice Cube), who runs the Jump Street program. They must go undercover at a high school to bust a drug ring selling a deadly new breed of high. The only problem is that in the ten years since they’ve both been at school, the times have rapidly changed and they find themselves in a world they no longer understand.
The real joys of 21 Jump Street begin when the film explicitly acknowledges the cycle of remakes and retreads. Ice Cube’s angry black Captain not only acknowledges his own stereotype, but the derivative nature of the plot. Referencing Jump Street as a “cancelled program from the 80s”, he ponders how they can keep dredging up “shit from the past and expect us all not to notice”. It is a small token of a line, which in and of itself doesn’t make the movie an instant classic, but it is part of a generous deal that asks us to overlook any familiar paths in return for a genuinely fun and funny ride through modern high school.
Throwing anything vaguely resembling the original show out the window, short of the title and the abandoned church headquarters, 21 Jump Street is above all things a comedy: one where the laughs are fast and frequent, and incredibly disarming at times. While some of the jokes are low-brow, including an alarming number of dick jokes that share the mildly homophobic humour of their contemporaries, the hit rate is pretty high thanks to a sharp screenplay from Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World‘s Michael Bacall, co-plotted by Jonah Hill.
Villains, friends and well-wishers are perfunctory when compared to the chemistry between Hill and Tatum, who make an excellent mismatched pair of cops. Once the initial gag of just how different they are wears off, we are left with an easy back and forth that plays to Hill’s natural comic experience and gives Tatum a chance to flex his hitherto unseen comedic flow. Placed in a rapid-fire series of scenarios, the pair seem to react as often as they are “acting”, and this is one of the great strengths of this comic gem.