SXSW Review: 21 Jump Street

'May be the most immature R-rated movie I've ever seen... but this is a good thing.'

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


21 Jump Street may be the most immature R-rated movie I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen all three Jackasses, but this is a good thing. The film does a lot of things right, especially for a remake of an old TV show.

In high school, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) was a loser and Jenko (Channing Tatum) was a popular slacker who made fun of him. They became friends in the police academy but they’re not good cops. So they’re sent to the newly reinstated Jump Street program to infiltrate a high school where a hot new designer drug is killing students.

There’s a thin layer of meta comedy that doesn’t stand out, but just the police chief (Nick Offerman)’s explanation of the Jump Street program has a comment on the phenomenon of remakes. Schmidt and Jenko are really irresponsible cops. They’re more like Bad Boys than any riff on the old undercover cop show, the way they do banter schtick, slapstick action, then more schtick.

The film is set up for Schmidt and Jenko to revert to their old high school personas of nerd and cool dude respectively. When they get to school the standards, the view of modern teen culture, is better than the “Mean Girl” stereotypes, and pretty accurate and timely.

They put Jenko and Schmidt in high school in 2005 so only seven years and they’re confused by the new cliques and totally out of touch. Now kids are into the environment and studying to get good grades is cool. And they’re sensitive to gays. These are all really good messages, but it’s already a good message that the guy who picked on you in high school realizes you’re a good partner in an adult job.

The comedy is still really juvenile. It’s fun to see cops be irresponsible in this context because it’s such a cartoon, they’re just a fantasy of what incompetence could manifest if these characters had access to police vehicles and weapons. They get into a fight or a car chase and it’s just a mess. The running gag on flammable tankers in a car chase pleased me. They have a crazy party, but more of a cartoon than the Project X party.

All the teachers at high school are funny day players who play their one note characters dutifully. I’m really glad Ellie Kemper is someone who gets cast in significant roles. Good for her. Chris Parnell and Rob Riggle must be this generation’s Brian Doyle Murrays.

There are heartfelt emotional moments that hearken back to TV show. At first they are ridiculous so it’s a great spoof, and then a few of them really land so the film wins you over to its character. There are still afterschool special lessons to be learned. Be yourself, people will like you for who you are, be nice to others, overcome your fears and obstacles.

All of this is great. I just don’t think it’s the greatest comedy of the year or the funniest we’ll see yet in 2012. A lot of the comedy scenes are just a lot of people yelling on top of each other, and you’ll hear a funny line in there, but plenty of the improvs/alternative lines are not that funny.

The backbone of the plot is a basic mistaken identity premise. Schmidt and Jenko switch covers, so it’s funny that Tatum is doing the nerd things and Hill is doing the athletic or charismatic things. I guess it’s classic comedy but feels like a formula. The basic partner issues are whatever, buddy cop movie schtick, could be Bad Boys or Rush Hour.

There are a lot of lazy stereotypes. Ice Cube totally embraces the angry black guy schtick, and Ice Cube yelling is awesome so it works. But let’s not pretend we’re exposing racial lines here. It’s true when Captain Dickson (Cube) says the world only cares about white kids dying, but it’s also the same old joke.

There’s a bit of cameo anxiety as you’re waiting for certain people to pop up in the film. They throw you a bone early but I’m not going to let you Dustin Nguyen fans off easy. You’re going to have to toil through it yourself and see if there are any surprises.