Like any successful television series, it was inevitable that 21 Jump Street would be adapted for the silver screen. The late eighties hit drama, about undercover cops in High School, struck a chord with audiences and made a teen icon out of relatively unknown actor known as Johnny Depp. But Hollywood has a habit of often flipping the script, taking a successful idea and heading in the opposite direction on its way to the cinema. 21 Jump Street as a comedy? Uh, no. Even I was more than somewhat skeptical and balked at the idea of an adaptation being turned into a vehicle for comedic actor Jonah Hill. Add Channing Tatum to the mix, an actor who still hasn’t found his proper footing in films despite starring in a hit movie or two and “21 Jump Street: The Comedy” sounds like a disastrous idea. Or so I thought.
This comedic adaptation isn’t perfect, but it’s also far from being disastrous. In fact, the film directed by Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs helmers Phil Lord and Chris Miller often feels as if it’s self aware that it is in fact a movie, fearlessly running with the idea that Hill and Tatum are a pair of inept rookie cops who clearly have no idea what they are doing. Even better is the fact that Michael Bacall’s (Project X) screenplay takes great pleasure in highlighting those ridiculous cliches familiar to cop shows, unlike Todd Phillips’ unsuccessful Starsky & Hutch adaptation. Though the television series made a success out of a somewhat implausible idea, Bacall’s screenplay seems fully aware of this in it’s humor. More than one character recognizes Tatum obviously looks too old for High School, while Ice Cube as the stereotypical police captain even acknowledges that he’s a stereotypical police captain. Rather than continually milk a gag, the film has a plethora of them up its sleeves. Some fail, but most hit on target rather than miss.
One unexpected comedic idea that works rather brilliantly in 21 Jump Street is the relationship between Hill and Tatum who initially begin as High School rivals before developing a full on “bromance.” With Tatum initially the popular the jock and Hill the pathetic brain, while undercover in search of the dealers for a new design drug, their roles are literally switched after a transcript mix up forces them to adopt the other’s fake identity. Hill not only manages to meet the approval of the cool clique at school led by Dave Franco (younger brother of James), but snags an unlikely love interest in the form of Brie Larson. Academic failure Tatum finds new friends in a group of science nerds led by Project X actor Dax Flame, but feels shockingly left out and even hurt that Hill is becoming the alpha male in a clique he dominated years earlier. Hill is an actor who’s no stranger to comedic interaction, making even awkward behavior look hip, but the real surprise is just how well Tatum embraces his role, managing to steal the entire picture. We see him go from being the “Jeff Spicoli” type, worshiped by his peers, to a pathetic and somewhat sensitive outcast, who feels left behind when his best friend becomes the popular kid at school. It’s one of many fresh ideas that makes 21 Jump Street work.
21 Jump Street is a satire that seems less concerned with plot and more interested in social interaction. The reason Hill and Tatum are sent undercover often gets pushed to the back burner even though their Captain Ice Cube repeatedly reminds them “locate the dealers, find the supplier.” As with most comedies, there comes a point where the humor does get sluggish and the film slowly runs out of steam. But it comes late in the game and there are a unique number of surprises that keep this picture running like a locomotive. It’s not a well oiled locomotive, but it reaches its destination and has more entertainment value than one might realize. Good fun.