21 Jump Street, One of Year's Best Surprises, Gets Coveted SXSW Bump
It wasn't tough to spot Channing Tatum or Jonah Hill at the after party following the SXSW premiere of 21 Jump Street; they were the ones, beaming unselfconsciously in the middle of the crowd, wearing bicycle-cop uniforms. More specifically, wearing their costumes from the movie, in which they play a pair of bumbling rookie policemen sent undercover to high school -- a set-up that so delivers beyond its premise that the '80s Johnny Depp TV series adaptation is actually one of the best new films of 2012, comedy or otherwise.
Sony's March 16 release had screened a handful of times for press leading into the SXSW premiere, establishing surprisingly strong word of mouth for months. Catching up with 21 Jump Street directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord after the film's equally supportive public debut found the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs helmers in fantastic spirits, and with good reason: If audiences follow the lead of critics and SXSWers, then 21 Jump Street could become a deserving critical and commercial hit in the mold of last year's Austin breakout Bridesmaids.
Credit goes to an exceedingly sharp script and great chemistry between leads Hill and Tatum, whose onscreen two-man comedy team rapport carries what might, in a lesser film, have been reduced to a fairly banal by-the-numbers plot (the pair go undercover in search of the source of a powerful and dangerous drug making the rounds in the high school set). The reboot takes its job seriously than, say, the Starsky and Hutches that came before it; if you're wondering how the hell anyone could justify resuscitating a decades-old idea from the depths of nostalgia, for example, the film beats you to it. If you're skeptical of seeing Ice Cube as Tatum and Hill's angry black police captain, Cube's Captain Dickson clears the air in his very first scene.
But 21 Jump Street isn't just clever in its construction and aware of its own inherent vulnerabilities to criticism -- it's pretty hilarious to boot. Two of the best jokes in my estimation come not from Tatum, who is genuinely funny and, more importantly, comfortable flexing his comic muscles here, or Hill, but from supporting players Dave Franco as the crunchy, Berkeley-bound popular kid and 21-year-old lady rapper Rye Rye as a fellow undercover Jump Streeter. The film even manages to use Rob Riggle well without succumbing to the near-universal rule that almost any comedy featuring the (talented!) Riggle turns out to be kind of terrible. Curse broken!
Drop back by Movieline on Thursday for Stephanie Zacharek's review of 21 Jump Street, and catch up on all of our SXSW 2012 coverage here.