The best revenge is success, which is something comic actor turned Oscar nominee Jonah Hill knows all too well. His emergence as scene stealer, unlikely leading man and in-demand Hollywood actor, is a great underdog story. Pairing Hill with Brad Pitt in Moneyball only underlined how against the grain Hill is as a movie star, especially in contrast to born megastar Pitt. Hill’s latest vehicle, which he co-wrote, co-produced and stars in, takes a dusty Fox cop drama and spins it into a fantasy about getting high school, and everything else in life, right the second time.
Hill stars as Schmidt, an awkward nerd whose high school nemesis, a long haired jock named Jenko (Channing Tatum), enjoys watching the “not-so-Slim-Shady” bomb at asking his dream girl to the prom. Years later, when the two are cadets in the Police Academy, Jenko realizes how dumb he truly was (and still is), drops the cruelty, turns to Schmidt as a study partner and helps whip his one-time hallway victim into shape. Once the two are given their first major assignment, their new friendship is tested when, during an undercover operation as high school students, they find the rules of being a teenager have changed and their roles as high school students are different the second time around.
No, I never watched 21 Jump Street when it was a series in the 1980s (I was more into The Wonder Years, Moonlighting and Max Headroom than cop shows). As for the movie, it’s foul mouthed, morally irresponsible, relentlessly vulgar and very funny. The first 30 minutes are non-stop, sustained hilarity and there are a lot of big laughs in the playful, surprising third act. The mid-section is less successful, with too many jokes that try hard to push the envelope of taste and a love story subplot is a disappointment.
The film sometimes becomes raunchy in search of easy, cheap laughs, but the best scenes have a crazy, anything-goes edge. In mixing cop movie cliches and R-rated jokes with winking movie spoofery, this is what Seth Rogen’s Observe and Report tried to be. For that matter, as an adaptation of a fondly remembered and profoundly silly TV show, it’s better than Starsky and Hutch, because it stays faithful to the source without lampooning everything.
Hill is in great comic form, finding the human center of a well realized character. Tatum is surprisingly good, showcasing, as he did in She’s the Man, that he has a knack for farcical comedy. As their no-nonsense chief, Ice Cube is a riot, barking out obscene one-liners with intimidating gusto and Dave Franco (James’ brother) is winning in the key role of the subject of the high school investigation.
It comes close to The Other Guys in its ability to mix sublimely funny vulgarity with solid action and satire. Not every target hits but when it goes after modern and old school teen experiences, action movie expectations and even movie remakes of 80’s TV shows, it keeps the belly laughs coming. It’s less successful at commenting on teen excess and mostly just exploits it; the message seems to be to indulge in everything when you’re young, a dubious moral, though I doubt anything here was meant to be taken remotely seriously.
Some side plots, like Ellie Kemper as a teacher lusting after Jenko, Schmidt’s living back with his parents during the undercover operation and even a high school production of Peter Pan wind up dead ends. But when it works, which is often, I was in hysterics.
21 Jump Street
★ ★ ★
Rated R/109 Min.