He Ain't Heavy, He's My Bro
Mention 21 Jump Street, and for anyone knowing anything about the popular 80-90s television series, the name Johnny Depp will automatically spring to mind, being synonymous with the series that propelled him into the consciousness of fans everywhere. With Hollywood constantly digging deep into its past and remaking films or adapting television series into films, and often to mixed results, it's little wonder what confidence there was with Jonah Hill's signalled interest in spearheading this, but frankly, he did such a great job with it that it's one of the more intelligent remakes out there since, well, the re-imagining of Star Trek, and probably one of the best buddy cop comedies since The Other Guys, and maybe even Hot Fuzz itself, the latter being my benchmark as the best in the last decade for its many film references, and being genuinely funny without trying too hard.
It's looking like a trend now with animated film directors diving into making live action features, with Brad Bird sucessfully taking the Mission: Impossible series to new heights, while Andrew Stanton struggled to make the century old John Carter interesting and relevant. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who were responsible for the film Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, brought the same enthusiasm felt from that animated feature into a series based on a premise that served as the inspiration for other films in film industries from Hong Kong's Fight Back to School, to India's Main Hoon Na by Farah Khan, and made it a pure entertaining ride from start to end. There was fine balance between the serious and the slapstick, and they just knew when to pull back rather than letting a running joke run stale. Things were kept simple, sticking to the well established background where youthful looking cops get into a police programme for undercover investigations into teen crimes, with the titular address being a church used as a front that the law enforcers operate from.
And much of the credit goes to Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill's solid story, where they successfully interpreted the spirit of the television series, and updated it for a one-time (or perhaps more if this is successful) feature film. Keeping to the premise without trying too smart to deviate from it, and with tons of self-deprecating humour (the direct jab at Hollywood's lack of creativity is spot on and such a blast), the first few minutes had established what the new 21 Jump Street would stand for - humor and cliches delivered absolutely right that they still packed quite a punch. We're introduced to the new partners of Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum), opposites in character, one time high school fiends and playing off each other's strengths in their new careers, getting assigned to a high school to sniff out a drug ring which they then have to infiltrate the dealer network in order to get to the supplier. Sounds simple, if not for their covers being accidentally mixed up, that they relive the nightmare of high school all over again, with Schmidt being mistaken for the hunkier of the duo, and Jenko being thought off as the jarhead nerd. The standard comedy of errors ensues, from infatuated school teachers to a rip-roaring sequence when the duo had to convince that they are indeed druggies, subjected to the multi-stage after effects of the lethal HFS drug as it is called, complete with condom-like packaging and cute looking logo that says it all.
References to other films, especially police and crime ones, were many, and hilarious, and the film doesn't take itself too seriously, preferring a fairly straightforward plot in order not to lose the audience through twists that stories these days just like to pile upon. Comedy also came from both Tatum and Hill playing with and against type simultaneously in their characters, with toilet humour rearing its head every now and then since Jonah Hill probably couldn't resist and succumbed to temptation to sneak in a couple. Vulgarities got used liberally and surprisingly doesn't come off as contrived efforts to elicit laughter, with Ice Cube playing it like a boss as Captain Dickson, the supervising detective at the helm of this revived police unit. Best of all there's still time for Jenko to get to know the new age nerds and get chummy with them - though I suspect there could have been more material here that had to give way, and for Schmidt to enter into a romance with fellow student Molly (Brie Larson). Dave Franco rounds up the recognizable cast given his doppelganger resemblance to older brother James Franco, playing a rich high school kid that I'd swear suggested at brotherly romance each time he gazes at Tatum's resident hunk.
But the best thing in the film, other than the plot, is the chemistry shared between Hill and Tatum. It was clear that since Hill co-wrote the story, there was more focus on his character of Schmidt and his journey to come out of the shell and build some self-esteem, versus Jenko having to learn what it's like being the bullied rather than the bully, and becoming exposed as being a dumb jock at every turn, if not for his sense of loyalty to build upon. But when put together, they play off each other so well that you'll clamour for more of their screen time together, rather than going off on their separate objectives in the same mission. With heavy hints at bromance, this film probably won't be as successful without both playing outside of their stereotype, put in situations that milked this camaraderie to the maximum, challenging cliches which inevitably exist in the genre. I couldn't imagine any other two actors who can pull off what they managed to do with the film's premise and material.
There's a much talked about cameo that happened, and fans of 21 Jump Street will probably acknowledge the attempts at closure for the television series, and the high-five passing of the baton to the new film version. It's a surprise package, surpassing what would be everyone's mediocre expectations of the film, only to come off pleasantly pleased at solid, mass entertainment. Highly recommended!