Monday, April 9, 2012

Down on "Jump Street"

Previously on the Miss Media Junkie blog, I declared I was ready to bust my nostalgia goggles and try to give the new "21 Jump Street" reboot a fair shake. Now I've finally seen movie film, and I find myself in the unique position of being a fan of the old "21 Jump Street" television show who can tell you exactly how the two versions match up. The new movie is a fun buddy action caper barely resembles the old FOX television show. The film is a comedy. The series, despite some humorous episodes, was not. It was a perfectly ordinary police procedural aimed at teenagers, featuring a group of attractive young officers going under cover in different high schools and colleges every week.

The movie, on the other hand, is really about two guys and their partnership – Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum), who went to high school together but don't become friends until they meet again years later in police academy. Schmidt is the chubby nerd with confidence issues. Jenko is the handsome jock, who isn’t very sharp. Both fit nicely into the mold of the immature male comedy hero who never really got over high school. A goof up gets Schmidt and Jenko transferred to the revived Jump Street program, where Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) sends them back to high school for their first assignment, to uncover the source of a new designer drug. This time, things are a little different for both of them.

There's no way to compare the past and present versions of "21 Jump Street" without acknowledging that in the twenty years the show has been off the air, the high school experience has changed drastically. And likewise, Schmidt and Jenko are stunned to discover that in the mere seven years that have passed since they left high school, the pecking order has changed, and the social rules are different. Schmidt ends up one of the cool kids, while Jenko discovers, to his horror, that he's classed with the nerds. It's only the first of many role reversals and clever tweaks of the high school formula that the writers deliver. I would like to take this moment to apologize for prematurely denigrating the writing skills of Jonah Hill, who is credited for story alongside screenwriter Michael Bacall. The pop-culture savvy script is hysterical, and the movie's biggest asset.

"21 Jump Street" riffs on modern teen comedies as much as it does on buddy cop stories, so it treats excessive partying, drinking, and drugs in a much more casual way that its straight-laced progenitor. One highlight is an extended sequence where Schmidt and Jenko are blitzed out of their minds and running amok around the school. Sex is referenced casually, and there are a couple of graphic moments played for laughs. Profanity is plentiful. Practically the only thing the film and TV show share is a penchant for over-the-top action sequences, which were a staple of the Stephen J. Cannell action shows. In the movie, Schmidt and Jenko get their share of chases and shootouts, though theirs are much, much funnier.

But what really impressed me about the movie, was how well Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum worked together, and how strong their dunderhead characters are. I haven't liked either of these actors in anything else, but here they show off solid comedic chops and have a real rapport. They had me significantly invested in the ups and downs of Schmidt and Jenko's partnership, which form the backbone of the movie and is the one thing that everyone takes completely seriously in the midst all the silliness. Similar partnerships in the original "21 Jump Street" were a big part of why I liked that show so much as a teenager. It was a nice touch that Schmidt and Jenko go undercover as the McQuaid brothers, the same aliases that Tom Hanson (Johnny Depp) and Doug Penhall (Peter Deluise) used back in the old days.

A long story short, this has been a good learning experience. There's at least one of these reboots or remakes that I write off every year that turns out to be great. This has been the best surprise so far. I can't say this is the best "21 Jump Street" reboot I could have hoped for, but it is the best comedic buddy movie I've seen in a long while, and the best teen comedy spoof. Heck, I think it's the best all-around R-rated comedy I've seen in a very long while.

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