REVIEW: 21 Jump Street Is Half Brilliant, Half a Mess, But Tatum and Hill Shine
There’s a peculiar kind of pleasure to be found in watching Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, in 21 Jump Street, horsing around and generally acting like doofuses for our amusement. As rookie cops assigned to patrol — by bicycle — a city park, they’re more than ready to prove their tough-guy status: When they spot a bunch of biker guys experiencing the joys of cannabis beneath a tree, they strut toward the gang in their shorts and bike helmets, but not before flipping their kickstands down with a mighty thwack. Later, Hill says a fervent prayer in the Catholic church that serves as headquarters for the undercover unit to which the duo has been assigned, its sign outside reading, in mistranslated Korean, “Aroma of Christ Church.” Hill kneels in front of the crucifix, beginning his urgent plea with the words, “Hey, Korean Jesus…” That irreverent riff captures the tone of the whole picture — it’s a ramshackle thing, a goof on the idea that anyone might actually care about a movie based on an old TV show, or that anyone might actually care about a movie at all.
For the first half, at least, 21 Jump Street gives us reason to care. In recent years, the mania for turning old TV shows into movies has waned — a good thing, particularly given the ungodly mess known as The Green Hornet. Still, movies inspired by TV shows are coming back with a tiny vengeance — we have Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, to name just one, to look forward to later this spring. And for now, 21 Jump Street is a small puff of fresh air simply because it’s not, like umpteen other releases coming down the pike, based on a comic-book series. Instead, its inspiration is a show that made its debut on the then-fledgling Fox Network in 1987 (and also helped launch the career of Johnny Depp, long before he became buried under Burton's makeup or obscured by pirate-y facial hair), although this 21 Jump Street has its own distinct, goofy flavor.
The movie opens in 2005, when Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) are still high school students. Schmidt is the smart, shlubby, unpopular one — he’s an Eminem nut with a crop of bottle-blond hair, which could be sort of cool if his braces didn’t ruin the whole effect. Jenko is the dumb, sleepy-eyed jock with lank, shaggy hair. When the school principal informs him that he can’t go to the prom and that it’s “time to pay the piper,” he squints at her dimly and murmurs, “I should pay who?”
Fast-forward a few years, and these two have become first police academy buddies (Jenko, recognizing he could use some help in the smarts department, latches onto Schmidt) and then rookie officers. After botching that aforementioned pot bust, the two are reassigned to an undercover unit — headed by a hard-ass, and very funny, Ice Cube — in which their job is to pose as teenagers and find the source of a drug that’s sweeping the local high school.
21 Jump Street is at its best when directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller — the guys behind the much-loved 2009 Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs — just let Hill and Tatum run with the patent ridiculousness of the setup. (The script is by Michael Bacall, from a story by Bacall and Hill.) Hill is reasonably funny and relaxed here; even when he’s playing the loser-sadsack, he radiates more confidence than he has in the past, instead of just relying on shtick. He still has that unassuming, “Who, me?” demeanor, but he’s more fully in control of it than ever before. And Tatum, who has already proved to be a marvelous dramatic actor even in throwaway pictures like Dear John (he also recently starred in the megahit The Vow), has the kind of comic timing that’s deceptively laid-back and sharp at the same time. His Jenko comes off as an easygoing galoot, which makes the idiot-savant observations he comes up with that much funnier. Schmidt, upon his return to high school, notes that all the things that made him uncool in his own high-school days (caring about the environment, being tolerant) have now become hip. Jenko agrees, and he doesn’t like it, looking for a place to lay the blame: “I know the cause. It’s Glee,” he says definitively, like a Sherlock Holmes who’s spent too much time parked in front of the tube.
Together Hill and Tatum are so much fun to watch that it’s disappointing when the story around them becomes overly cluttered and convoluted. To say 21 Jump Street loses the plot isn’t quite accurate: It’s a pretty loose-limbed affair from the get-go. But Lord and Miller insist on turning it into an action film, complete with elaborate car chases and shootouts that betray the spirit of silliness they laid out at the beginning. 21 Jump Street falters when it becomes too ambitious. Its finest moments — as when Schmidt and Jenko sternly forbid a bratty kid from feeding ducks in the park, which causes him to immediately (what else?) feed the ducks — are the ones that feel unplanned and tossed-off. In those moments, 21 Jump Street shows a kind of wayward, pigeon-toed brilliance. Maybe that particular brand of half-assed genius is too evanescent to survive a whole movie. Then again, half an ass is better than none.