By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com March 19, 2012 at 12:57PM
On paper, "21 Jump Street" was not an enticing proposition. A reboot of a 1980s TV series with a ludicrous premise -- fresh-faced cops go undercover as high school students. Produced by Neal Moritz, a man whose last attempt at an action-comedy reboot of a famous property was the dreadful "The Green Hornet." Directed by two first-time live-action feature directors. Written by the man behind "Project X." And starring Jonah Hill, coming off a terrible R-rated comedy flop, in "The Sitter," and Channing Tatum, a man whose previous turns weren't so much performed as whittled out of wood.
And yet, "21 Jump Street" was a success, opening to a hugely impressive $35 million over the weekend. And more importantly, it was also really, really good, arguably the best studio movie of this young year to date, and one of the funniest comedies in years. So what happened? What separated the film, directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, and written by Michael Bacall, from the dozens of other R-rated comedies in the last few years? The film's certainly got problems (a drawn-out ending, a weak villain), but for the most part, it works like gangbusters, and we've gone in depth, to examine why the film is such an unlikely triumph. Spoilers ahead.
While generally speaking, you’ll hear us advocate for character and story development, there are always exceptions to the rule. And “21 Jump Street” is one of them. The script by Michael Bacall, from a story hatched with Jonah Hill, opens with a compact, concise ten minutes that essentially is wrapped up in one line: “Wanna be friends?” Recognizing that Schmidt’s booksmarts would meld perfect with his own physicality, Jenko extends the olive branch, the two race through Academy training thanks to a hilarious montage, and then we’re dropped right into their careers as rookie cops. While we’ll get bits and pieces filled in as the movie continues, Bacall and directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller choose to go straight to the plot and comedy, and it’s a smart play, one that establishes the film as a raucous ride, right from the start.
2) A Lean & Satisfying Script
That opening ten minutes are a good indicator of how the film as a whole will play out: unusually for most modern comedies, there's not a lot of fat on the bones. Even the best of the Judd Apatow stable ("Knocked Up," "Bridesmaids") feel a little overlong and sluggish in places, but "21 Jump Street" moves at a crackerjack pace throughout. It digresses occasionally, but those threads never feel indulgent, and generally the more leftfield moments are working towards some greater purpose in terms of setting up character or plot: even the drug freakout sequence pays off when Molly blows Schmidt and Jenko's cover at the worst possible moment. There’s a tightness to Bacall’s scripting that’s reminiscent of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s films -- unsurprising when you consider that Bacall co-wrote “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World.” They all know that when the set-up and the punchline are really in harmony, you don't just laugh, but you feel inherently satisfied. A case in point...
The easy way to take “21 Jump Street” would’ve been to go down the action route, packing it with explosions, while Tatum and Hill throw quips back and forth. Instead, the film wisely prefers to send up the genre instead, all while playing within the framework, and when it comes time to the centerpiece action sequence, “21 Jump Street” gleefully subverts convention at the same time. Running afoul of a motorcycle gang, Schmidt and Jenko wind up in a freeway chase. For the duo who expect their careers to be like what they’ve seen on TV, things don’t quite go as planned. Directors Lord and Miller make the sequence a showcase for their comic timing -- something that approaches a “Looney Tunes” sensibility here -- as two trucks (incuding one hilariously stenciled “Oil & Fuel”) come in path of the bullets and bikes and...nothing happens. Jenko and Schmidt are baffled, but when it comes to the innocent looking chicken truck...the audience set up with two missed explosions knows what’s coming. That it’s still insanely funny is all due to the work of Lord and Miller who show that sometimes the buildup, is even better than the punchline.