21 Jump Street

In 1987, the fledgling Fox television network launched a cop show featuring young-looking officers that infiltrated high schools and colleges to fight various types of crime.  The most notable thing about the show was it gave many people their first look at a young actor named Johnny Depp.  Depp disliked the “teen idol” status the show gave him and always sought distance from that image.  It’s been 21 years since the show ended production.  Depp has gone on to make varied and interesting films in that time and very few people remember his days as Officer Tom Hanson.  Now, Hollywood, which had largely run out of original ideas back when Depp was a TV cop, has used the old show as a vehicle for a silly comedy and Depp, who has almost always bad mouthed that time in his career, has a cameo as his old character.  Makes you wonder just how big a check they wagged under his nose to get him on screen and return to “21 Jump Street.”
 
Rookie cops Morton Schmidt and Greg Jenko (Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum) have known each other since high school where they had very different experiences.  Schmidt was the intelligent but unpopular nerd, while Jenko was a popular jock who didn’t do well in class.  Meeting again at the police academy, each of their strengths compliments the other’s weaknesses and they help each other become policemen.  The pair is assigned to patrol a public park after they graduate from the police academy.  Thinking their lives as cops would be more exciting than fishing Frisbees out of a pond and trying to stop people from feeding the ducks, they enthusiastically celebrates when Jenko arrests the leader of the drug dealing 1 Percent Gang, Domingo (DeRay Davis).  Unfortunately, Jenko doesn’t read Domingo his Miranda Rights and the man is released.  Their boss, Deputy Chief Hardy (Nick Offerman) sends the men to a new precinct to participate in an undercover operation.  The operation, located in an abandoned Korean church located at 21 Jump Street, is led by Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) who is constantly yelling at Schmidt, Jenko and the other young officers in the unit.  Dickson sends the two to a high school where a student recently died from an overdose of a new synthetic drug known as HFS.  Their job is to find out who the sellers and makers of the drug are and to keep it from spreading to other schools.  When their undercover identities get switched, Schmidt sees life as he wanted it when he went to school--as a member of the popular clique.  Jenko discovers he’s now mired in college-level chemistry, band and surrounded by the geeks and nerds he used to make fun of.  It quickly becomes clear that the popular Eric Molson (Dave Franco) is the student in charge of the drug dealing; but they don’t know who the supplier is.  They’ll need to move fast to keep more students from dying and prevent HFS from spreading.
 
The announcement of and trailer for “21 Jump Street” did nothing to make me want to see it.  I never watched the original show and knew it wouldn’t be in any way similar to it.  Neither Hill nor Tatum is at the top of my must-see-actors list.  Just to be clear, I don’t really have a list like that.  The trailer struck me as a goofy, boy’s club, raunchy comedy that would quickly grate on my nerves and have very few actual laughs.  Allow me be the first to say, I was completely wrong.
 
“21 Jump Street” manages to wring laughs out of a tired plot structure, contrived situations and unlikely scenarios.  Credit for this must go to Hill and Tatum who, despite their radical differences, manage to somehow develop a believable and entertaining chemistry.  Hill, who co-wrote the script and produced the movie (along with Tatum and others), conveys an authentic high school nerd as well as an eager police rookie.  While the two incarnations of his character are separated by only seven film years, there’s an obvious amount of (but not enough, as we learn) personal growth on display in this young officer.  While Jonah Hill is best known for roles in more raunchy films like “Superbad” and “Knocked Up,” he was recently nominated for best supporting actor at this year’s Oscars.  He can be a good actor when he’s challenged by the material.  While this film isn’t at all serious like “Moneyball,” Hill is still able to dig into a character and find the aspects of the role that make him a believable human.  Tatum, better known for his action films and being a former male stripper (the subject of one of his future films) was a surprise.  While he’s hosted “Saturday Night Live” in the last few months to promote this film, I don’t think many people thought he could be funny.  Tatum is able to deliver the laughs without appearing to try that hard.  That he can keep up with comedic pros Rob Riggle and Nick Offerman may shock many of his detractors.  He may be a better actor than his previous films have allowed him to show.  Tatum’s not afraid of trying a wide variety of material in his film choices.  He’s been a Roman officer in “The Eagle,” a street fighter in “Fighting,” a hip-hop dancer in “Step Up,” a soldier in “Stop Loss,” a caricature of a soldier in “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” and it’s upcoming sequel, and a sweet and sensitive romantic lead in “Dear John” (again, a soldier) and the recently released “The Vow”.  While most of his films have not been big moneymakers or very well received critically, Tatum has continued to plug away.  You have to admire his persistence.
 
The rest of the cast, while not exactly challenged, delivers the support the two leads need.  The villain of the piece is high school drug dealer Eric, played by James Franco’s brother, Dave.    He’s a believable high school BMOC who comes off as both friendly and smarmy.  Brie Larson plays Eric’s female friend with benefits, Molly.  I think she’s in the film so there would be a woman on screen at least occasionally; otherwise, the movie is a sausage-fest.  Rob Riggle plays track coach Mr. Walters.  Riggle has a stock comedic character that is loud and kind of dumb and it is on display here.  There are various other characters like Schmidt’s doting parents, Jenko’s new nerd friends, a teacher with an unhealthy attraction to Jenko’s pretend student and Ice Cube’s angry police captain.  No one really sticks out as terribly memorable but each does what’s necessary to assist in moving the story along.
 
“21 Jump Street” uses a tired plot where the two heroes must go through various situations, argue and separate, then come back together when they realize they can’t live without each other.  If this sounds like every romantic comedy you’ve ever seen, along with half of every other type of film ever made, then you would be right.  While the movie is a bromantic comedy, the usual story contrivances are on display.  You’ll be able to see each twist and turn telegraphed as it approaches.  If the filmmakers strapped a flashing light and siren to each plot point they wouldn’t be more obvious.  Fortunately, the script provides enough laughs for you to largely ignore the predictable story arc.
 
“21 Jump Street” is rated R for crude and sexual content, pervasive language, drug material, teen drinking and some violence.  We get a brief glimpse of a threesome at a party.  Various drugs, including the pretend one in the story, are frequently shown being used on screen.  Alcohol is also frequently consumed by characters that are supposed to be in high school.  There is a rolling gunfight through rush hour traffic and a stabbing at a party.  Foul language is frequent but not as pervasive as you might think.
 
Johnny Depp, who was introduced to many Americans, on the original Fox TV show, reprises his role in a cameo.  He’s joined in that scene by former co-star Peter DeLuise.  Original cast member Holly Robinson-Peete also has a brief appearance along with a video cameo from Dustin Nguyen.  The biggest mystery of all may be the absence of Richard Grieco.  Actually, it’s not.
 
“21 Jump Street” gets four guitars out of five.
 
Fearing they would be wasting a perfectly good film, the major studios are clearing the way for the much anticipated big screen adaptation of “The Hunger Games.”  Therefore, I’ll be giving you some art house choices along with the expected box office juggernaut.  Vote for the next movie you’d like me to see and review.
 
Jeff Who Lives at Home—When Jeff (Jason Segel) leaves his mother's basement to buy wood glue at the store, he looks for signs from the universe to determine his path.
 
The Hunger Games—In a post-apocalyptic world, an annual event pits teens in a televised battle in which only one person can survive.
 
Thin Ice—A small time insurance agent picks the wrong person on which to run a scam in an effort to improve his life.
 
Stan’s Choice—Stan sees and reviews any film of his choice.
 
Release dates are subject to change and not all films may be shown in Knoxville, TN.
 
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