The late '80s and early '90s were a very weird time on television. There was a lot of stuff on that was totally awful entertainment but it did really well. Was this because almost everything was awful so by comparison it was easy to look average and therefore watchable? Perhaps. But for four years during that time, the brand new Fox Network aired the show 21 Jump Street for over a hundred episodes. It was about young cops that went undercover in high schools posing as students and fighting crime. It was a premise so stupid that the entire cast, to this day, still regret doing it. So why would anyone remake this show into a movie? Because it would be funny as hell.
There is lots about 21 Jump Street the movie that's worthy of pointing out of succeeding. Stars Jonah Hill, who I was completely over and didn't see any talent left in at all, and Channing Tatum, who shocks me when he forms whole sentences let alone acts, are both brillant in the film. They couldn't be funnier and are fantastic enough to carry it themselves. There are other performers that steal the occational scene, such as Ice Cube as the angry police captain or Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation) as another angry police captain, but the film belongs to Hill and Tatum. They work together so incredibly well, it makes you forget the chemistry Hill had with Michael Cera in Suberbad and give credit to the fact that maybe he just has great comedic talent.
The direction is handled by the tag team of Chris Miller and Phil Lord in their first live action feature film. Their last movie was the shocking awesome and funny Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. (Trust me on this!) Now only do they handle the world of real camera shots of real humans but they make it look like they've been doing it for decades. The action, the editing, the aggression and the bloodhound-like sense of smelling out what's funny is all so good that it deserves to be among some of the best action comedies in the last decade.
However the best thing about 21 Jump Street is the self awareness it has. The film knows it's silly never once looses sight of the fact that it's film meant to be fun. There's even a line where a character says, "And that was the end of Act 2," which is funny to anyone who understands that every film must have three acts and almost always follow a formula. 21 Jump Street is no exception but at least it knows it, exploits it and makes it really freakin' funny.
Never once though does it slip into a parody of the TV show. It's not there to insult anyone who worked on or was a fan of the show. In fact, even though the whole cast thinks the show was a piece of crap, they're all in the film....even Johnny Depp. They're all hidden as different characters and have funny make-up on but it's a great game to see if you can find them all. The scene with Depp is unmissable and one of the best scenes in the movie. Depp seemed like he really enjoyed himself and I give credit to Hill and Tatum for stepping back and allowing him to be the star of the movie for about 3 minutes. It was worth it.
21 Jump Street isn't a "thinker" or Oscar material. What it it is, is good old fashioned funny-as-sh*t action comedy. The kind that used to come out every summer like Bad Boys, 48 Hours, Beverly Hills Cop, and Lethal Weapon. I never thought that Jonah Hill would be believable in one of those no matter how much weight he lost; but he was and was pretty good. He's not convincing as a high school student anymore, but neither is Tatum and that's part of the joke. I don't know if 21 Jump Street will go down as the funniest comedy of the year, although it has a good shot at it so far, but you can count on it going down on as the biggest shocker of the year - successfully making a terrible TV show into an edgy, fun, kick-ass action comedy that is even worthy of a second viewing.
21 Jump Street (Rated R)
Gavin Grade: A