21 Jump Street Review: Funniest Film This Side of Superbad

21 Jump Street is that rarest of comedies, a classic in the making that manages to become both more outrageous and hilarious as it bounds along.

rating: 4.5

21 Jump Street is one of those films that just should not succeed. Adapted from a 1980s TV series which wasn't all that great to begin with, reconfigured here as a comedy, and incredulously being directed by Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs helmers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, a lot of red flags are raised before the curtain even is. Consider it a wholly pleasant surprise, then, that this is one of the most inscrutably brilliant comedies - and indeed, films full stop - to abound in quite a while, brimming with fierce, confident wit, outstanding performances, and perhaps most impressively, a firm self-awareness of just how potentially irrelevant it could possibly be in the wrong hands. The core premise stands just as fans of the show will remember it; two youthful-looking police officers, Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum), are initiated into an eccentric undercover program which has them posing as high school students in order to infiltrate a drug ring and find the supplier of a dangerous new street narcotic. Schmidt and Jenko have a past, though; having attended high school together, Jenko was the antagonist to Schmidt's shy and retiring dweeb, and now, partnered together, they must have each other's backs. Beginning with a brief prologue, 21 Jump Street quickly shows its aspirations towards pop-culture pastiche; as Schmidt and Jenko are spat out by the high school system and find each other in another one, it feels like a comic reconfiguring of The Departed, and strangely, is gratifying both as a comedy and as the police procedural that it is mocking. Nevertheless, this is the most awkward section of the film, with a few dead gags which don't really hit home, but once you get past the slightly rickety set-up, it's a thick and fast avalanche of outrageous yet slyly smart gags. Much of the film's success is down to its casting; Jonah Hill was always going to be a slam dunk in a role like this - and yes, he's still funny now that he's thin - but the inspiration comes from playing him opposite Channing Tatum. Tatum is a likeable actor, albeit one rightly maligned for his inconsequential performances in a plethora of rom-coms and insipid dramas, which play to his aesthetic strengths as an attractive young star, yet not his instincts as an actor. The R-rated comedy, it seems, might be his calling; after providing some of the best laughs in the mostly lame comedy The Dilemma last year, there's no doubt with this that he seems so much more at home being able to take drugs and curse. Playing a seemingly dunderheaded jock-type character who in fact has a heart of gold, this is unquestionably his best casting and performance since his startling work in A Guide to Recognising Your Saints. Perhaps most surprising about 21 Jump Street is not so much the fact that it isn't a train wreck, but that it is aggressively aware of the criticisms and expectations that people have of it. Two of the film's funniest gags turn out to be cunning meta-jokes; one acknowledges Hollywood's tendency to rehash past successes - while the film is confident enough to know that it is the rare exception to the rule - and another tweaks the delivery of a line from the trailer, which is extremely clever and howlingly funny for those obsessive-compulsive enough to notice. At a basic level, it is a mash-up of police procedural spoof and high school satire, The Departed mated with The Breakfast Club, or more appropriately, Hot Fuzz mated with Superbad. Early jibes are perhaps obvious yet no less hilarious - for example, Ice Cube is a lot of fun as a walking stereotype of a shouty, aggressive, black police chief - but as the second act emerges, the film transforms into a potent skewering of high school's contradictions, making light of the fleeting nature of teenage trends. Schmidt and Jenko are absolutely baffled by which strap configuration for bag-wearing is now considered "cool", and in 2012, many of the people they might have dismissed in their time as geeks - the eco-warriors, for one (led by Dave Franco) - are now the cool kids themselves. Even only seven years out of high school, they are artifacts of a time gone by, perhaps, as they theorise, thanks to the profound effect of Glee on this generation. As a result of their situation, much of the film's humour naturally derives from the opportunity they have to relive past glory, or indeed, past failures. In this seemingly backwards high school hierarchy, Schmidt finds himself popular and likeable, while Tatum is completely dumbfounded by the nascent trends and resembles a bumbling, stone age oaf who nevertheless winds up adopted by some of the school's science geeks. It's hilarious and even surprisingly touching, yet never in a way that is obtrusive to the maximum level of amusement possible. While it is understood from the outset that the pair are not to fraternise with anyone from the school nor provide any minors with alcohol, all this does is provide them with the impetus to do so; it isn't long before a party is thrown, and they wind up stealing drugs from a police evidence locker to load their friends up with. Their lack of moral agency, reverting to 18-year old versions of their adult selves, makes for the most uproarious comedy this side of Superbad, complete with some unexpectedly surreal moments when they are forced to try out the new street drug themselves (though with Scott Pilgrim scribe Michael Bacall on board, perhaps we shouldn't be that surprised). With its high level of violence splayed over a comic style, it could have been easy for this 21 Jump Street to suffer from tonal inconsistencies in the vein of Pineapple Express, but directors Lord and Miller strike a perfect balance, unleashing a unique bout of morbid, sick humour, interspersed with genuinely sweet insights into the protagonists. The action, while frequent and shockingly bloody, is never anything less than silly. The film never gets carried away with itself and what it is capable of, even as the insanity level ratchets up to dizzying heights later on; a surprise cameo by a high-profile cast member from the original show is brilliant fan service - with more hilarious meta-humour to boot - and a nice way to cool things down in the middle of a bloody gunfight. This is a film all the more surprising in its excellence because very few people expected it to be; how often is a comic remake of a classic drama series a success, let alone arguably far better in quality and execution than the original product? Somehow, this unlikely collective of directors and actors has pulled it off. 21 Jump Street is that rarest of comedies, a classic in the making that manages to become both more outrageous and hilarious as it bounds along. 21 Jump Street is released in cinemas from today.
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Frequently sleep-deprived film addict and video game obsessive who spends more time than is healthy in darkened London screening rooms. Follow his twitter on @ShaunMunroFilm or e-mail him at shaneo632 [at]