This movie, by the way, takes advantage of its source material, an 80’s TV show of the same name starring Johnny Depp and Holly Robinson (now Peete). Had it been released in an alternate universe as its own concept, audiences would think it’s ludicrous. The screenwriters adapting this material to the 21st century, Jonah Hill, Scott Pilgrim writer Michael Bacall, director Phil Lord and Puss in Boots director Christopher Miller perceive this as a hurdle that they cross beautifully.
A personal note about the subject of this movie. Like junior policemen Jenko, played by Channing Tatum and Schmidt, by Hill, I also belong to the class of 2005 (The blue and red all caps inter-titles also probably makes this the greatest American movie to ever reference Jean-Luc Godard. I’m half serious.). In this America, Jenko and Schmidt fall on opposite sides of the polarized jock/nerd dividing old high schools of reality and fiction. I’m not going to take this as a point against the movie, but I saw the tides turn in that year or ones before. I remember a jock (specifically the most coveted male student who had the face/abs/nipple piercings) telling me that he found it weird yet enjoyed that a goth, a Polish girl who listened to gangster music and me accidentally joined his pot circle. Despite being the voice of a generation, Eminem and the other aggressive angsty figures are replaced by dancey stuff.
I even suspect that our generation has something to do with it and yes I’m being cocky here. The elder classes held on to the binary but dissatisfied with these earlier models we took our different perspective and repressed resentments into making new moulds of chic in college and afterwards and I’m pretty sure the younger kids saw that and thought it was awesome. And now kids, or middle class kids at least, are sophisticated, dinnering in midtown restaurants, shopping for clothes that would have gotten me beat up seven years ago, impressing their teachers and being blase about doing so many kinds of drugs that I would run out of digits to count them, if I tried.
The movie deals with these cultural waves but in an extreme execution. After graduating high school and the police academy, becoming unlikely friends and bungling a drug bust, their Deputy Chief Hardy (Nick Offerman) re-assigns our protagonists into the titular 21 Jump Street, a program where younger looking cops (including Rye Rye) return to high school and infiltrate juvenile crime.
Just like my unreliable old man observations about today’s youth, they return to an environment giving them clue after subtle clue. Despite of Jenko’s predictions, kids don’t carry their backpacks singe strap and the parking lot is populated by geeks, one group more colourful and uninhibited than the previous one. The nerds have become popular and the jocks are semi-awkward track kids. Jenko, the only jock left in the traditional sense, is the fading noble viking conquered by his intellectual superiors, some of whom work out just as much as he does. In a way, this main plot structure is a retelling of Rip van Winkle, already making this movie an American institution. I’m half serious.
Like my eclectic pot circle, a drug is the secret invisible force that unites and corrupts Jenko and Schmidt’s assigned school, Sagen High. This time it’s called HFS which is short for Holy Fucking Shit, a synthetic drug that lives up to its name (I’ve also been watching a lot of NatGeo lately, adding to my armchair knowledge of the misinformation about these designer drugs and complicates the movie’s dénouement but who cares). We see a student, Billiam Winningham (Johnny Simmons, who plays Young Neil in Scott Pilgrim) post a Youtube video of himself taking the drug and recording its four stages, the effects on young Billiam is exemplary physical comedy to both the policemen and to us until their new boss Captain Dickson (Ice Cube, playing cop again after Rampart) reveals that the kid has died of an overdose.
Their mission, as Dickson shouts in a mantra, is something like ‘infiltrate the dealers, find the suppliers,’ which should be easy if the two gun-toting, hand-to-hand fighting chaser cops didn’t dip into hilarious human error, including Schmidt’s friendship with yearbook committee member/dealer (Dave Franco) and the latter’s open relationship girlfriend Molly (Brie Larson). These forbidden partnerships ruins the dynamic between the two cops and the movie delicately plays with their own unlikely friendship, as both are haunted by the past and present power dynamics between them.
The rifts between Jenko and Schmidt cause some of the movies surprisingly unforced pathos. There’s something interesting about these supposed sentimental moments, that the camera constantly moves – or has the semblance of movement – in those sequences so we don’t lose that comedy-action momentum while showing the drama. Those sections, in other words, have a cartoony aesthetic that complement the comic-book effect on the hilarious drug phase scenes (Bacall and Miller’s animation CV’s help with this.
The other source of comedy is the protagonists’ one-upmanship, both causing a lot of falling gags, dick jokes, relentless montages and ‘I rule and you suck!’ barbs. Those methods of comedy shouldn’t work but they do, just because Hill, Tatum and the rest of the cast deliver their jokes with a straight face and Miller directs these scenes without telling his actors to overt and slowing down the jokes, which surprisingly and disappointingly happens too much in recent comedies. There are brilliant scenes with Ellie Kemper’s – who I’m always partial to – conflicting Mary Kay Letourneau lust towards Jenko (ironically because it’s Jenko as an undercover who’s forbidden to fraternize with students and teachers) and she just says opposing words and phrases given life by her delivery. Her character could have been a histrionic one but she makes it just kooky and makes you listen to how hilarious her conflict is.
Also in the cast are Rob Riggle, Jake M. Johnson, many more familiar young faces and Depp is in a surprising cameo. This brew of crudity didn’t necessarily make me love it unconditionally for the movie’s first half but it’s underplayed, straightforward approach refreshingly went down easily, and I dismissed any possible objection as the laughs kept coming. 4/5. Image via hollywood.com