Given a comedic make-over this time around (and starring the odd couple casting of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill) any film where a character hilariously and succinctly sums up the cynical intentions of the actual makers of the film in the first few minutes instantly deserves some kind of appreciation.
Hill and Tatum are Schmidt and Jenko, recently graduated police cadets of the chalk and cheese temperament. Having formed a tight bond throughout training by using brains and brawn (it isn’t hard to guess who is matched to which attribute), they turn out to be pretty useless law enforcement officers, and like the character of Danny Butterman in Hot Fuzz (a film which shares similar DNA to ‘Jump Street’) their romanticised idea of the job stems from big-screen action films they grew up on.
Luckily, their arrest(ed) development stands them in good stead for an assignment over at 21 Jump St, and they’re promptly transferred over to the police unit there which is headed by the non-nonsense Capt. Dickson (a fun turn from Ice Cube, who wears a permanent scowl throughout, even when he’s munching on food). Ordered to go undercover at the local high school to monitor the movements of a new, potentially-fatal synthetic party drug exchanging hands between students, their mission is (unsurprisingly) hampered when they enter a world which is now unrecognisable to them. The politically-correct, metrosexual schoolyard offers the chance for Schmidt to finally fit in with the popular kids, while Jenko’s macho posturing is now frowned upon by his old clique and he finds himself occupying the same social pecking order his partner was once accustomed to.
21 Jump Street is a film which knows its young demographic inside out. Co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (the duo behind the zingy animated feature Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) show an imaginative visual flair in their live-action debut, and like the aforementioned Edgar Wright-directed feature, they also have a lot of fun playing with the tropes of the genre. They’re equally adept at delivering the big action set-pieces amongst the smaller, well-observed school exploits. This isn’t to say the film maintains a consistent hilarity throughout however, and some scenes fall into the hit and miss category (the stage production of Peter Pan which Schmidt headlines fails to really bring the house down) but when it does find it’s mark, it’s very funny indeed (there’s a lovely dig at Glee and a sequence where the officers grow increasingly wired and out of control, having been forced to ingest the drugs, is inspired).
The two stars acquit themselves very well, but the real surprise here is Tatum who isn’t the first name you would usually associate with this type of broad, knockabout fare. He’s loose, witty and definitely on a comedic par with Hill (who is also co-scribe). The shifting of their popularity status upon re-entering the school system offers an interesting and thoughtful glimpse into the whole geeks on top ethos, but unfortunately that material is never fully exploited to a satisfying degree and often gets lost in the bigger aspects of the film.
Still, for the most part this is a fun, big-budget retread which manages to maintain an entertaining momentum all the way through to the (surprisingly) bloody finale. While many remakes offer a lacklustre facsimile of the original, 21 Jump Street reworks what was already a pretty preposterous premise and imbues it with a fun, irreverent mix of big laughs and big thrills. It’s just a shame it doesn’t stop to take a breath once in a while and concentrate on its homework.