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10 Reasons Why '21 Jump Street' Exceeded Expectations

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist 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. 
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4) It Has Fun Redefining The High School Stereotypes
As we noted in our feature on high school movies last week, the genre is filled with easily identifiable stereotypes from film to film. But again, in a quest to keep things fresh and to emphasize the fish-out-of-water situation Schmidt and Jenko find themselves in, Bacall and Hill create a high school world that has changed dramatically. Environmentalism and tolerance are the tickets to the top of the high school popularity chain, while aggressive machismo of the jock crowd will put you on the outside. So too is school spirit (in a nice little character detail, Dave Franco’s drug dealing Eric is not only using the yearbook room to do business, he’s actually editing it too). Suddenly, Schmidt finds his honest awkwardness as an asset in this world, while Jenko has to completely readjust to not being immediately accepted. Indeed, the high school world presented here is how many of us would find it returning back to the hallways of our old alma mater -- surreal and strange, with a whole new set of rules. The filmmakers understand that, and use it to great comic effect.

Jonah Hill Channing Tatum 21 Jump Street
5) It's Genuinely And Consistently Surprising
Some would have you believe that audiences only ever want variations on what they've seen before, repeated endlessly; something familiar, something comforting. We'd suggest that audiences are actually crying out for the opposite, and what's nice about Lord and Miller's film is that it consistently defies your expectations. We've highlighted two of the best examples above, in the car chase gag and the portrayal of the high schoolers, but it's consistent across the film. From the canny way that Jenko and Schmidt have their high school roles reversed to the Johnny Depp cameo (admittedly, that was spoiled for many by the trades months ago, but the audience we saw gasped in shock, and then again when he's brutally shot to pieces), from Jenko vomiting after a gunfight to Rob Riggle ending the film with his own dick in his mouth. You might be able to predict the broad sweep of the film, but scene by scene, all kinds of surprises and overturned cliches await, and it makes the film feel genuinely fresh.

6) It's Self Aware Without Becoming Too Meta
Part of the reason many have been wary about the film is that it seems to be indicative of the worst of Hollywood reboot culture. But the filmmakers don't just manage to successfully revamp the cops-in-high-school concept, but they also poke fun at themselves for even attempting it. From Nick Offerman's Sgt telling the central pair that the undercover program's being revived due to a "lack of imagination," to Chris Parnell's drama teacher announcing "That's the end of the second act!" at... the end of the second act, it's full of neat, knowing references without alienating a wider audience (Offerman's "37 Jump Street" gag plays to everyone who knows the title). And like "Hot Fuzz," easily the closest comparison point, it knows the genre in and out, celebrating and sending up the cliches, and placing more emphasis on its central buddy bromance than anything else.

21 Jump Street Jonah Hill Brie Larson
7) It's Very Sweet And Never Mean-Spirited
For an action-comedy, it's quite rare that the stakes come not from the drug-bust aspect of the plot (which is, let's face it, mainly a peg from which to hang everything else), but from the characters. Hill and Tatum are an unlikely pairing, but their friendship feels genuine from the first, and you genuinely care about their relationship. Hill's romance with Brie Larson's character is also nicely drawn -- she's out of his league, but you also buy that she might be drawn to him. Indeed, she's a more rounded female character than you get in most films of this type, and that's true in many instances: Dave Franco, for instance, gives a surprising level of nuance to his drug dealer: he's not a bad kid, he's actually generous and kind, he's just making bad decisions. There's an admirable open-mindedness across the film, especially when put up against the sometimes conservative nature of, say, the Apatow films; Larson and Franco's casual relationship is dealt in a very matter-of-fact way, and Tatum and Hill's sweetly sincere relationship, even down to them "fingering" each other's mouths, never descends into the gay panic jokes that lesser films would have included.

This article is related to: 21 Jump Street, Features, Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, Michael Bacall, Brie Larson, Dave Franco


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