In cinema as in life, self-awareness can be a virtue or it can be a deadly thing. Since there’s essentially no such thing as originality -- conceding that you’re working within existing parameters or with familiar formula excuses -- it can sometimes enhance the effectiveness of a lot of necessary decisions that eventually must be made in order to tell a story. Calling too much attention to those choices, however, turns storytelling into parody, characters into punch lines, and any emotional investment that may once have existed into fodder for dismissal, if not derision.
“21 Jump Street,” Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s big-screen update of the 1980s TV show of the same name, is the best possible example of a film transcending its limitations by acknowledging them from the get-go: combining the conventions of teen comedies and cop thrillers into an appropriately cinematic adventure. Lord and Miller have created an instant classic – an action movie that’s as sweet as it is smart, and undeniably funny on top.
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum play Schmidt and Jenko, two former high school adversaries who become buddies at the police academy after they realize that their respective skills provide each of them with something the other desperately lacks. Assigned to a local park where they pursue errant Frisbees and unsuccessfully try to stop children from feeding the ducks, the duo daydream about car chases and explosions, eventually going overboard while apprehending some thugs in the hopes they’ll get to trade in their bikes for a police cruiser. Instead, they get shuffled off to Jump Street, where the permanently exasperated Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) sends them into a local high school to find the source of a synthetic drug appropriately called Holy Fucking Shit.
Armed with new identities, they become Doug and Brad, brothers who are expected to more or less replicate the same spot in the popularity food chain Schmidt and Jenko did when they were actually in high school. But when it turns out that “cool kids” like Eric (Dave Franco) and Molly (Brie Larson) share more in common with Schmidt’s sensitivity than they do Jenko’s blustery indifference, the cops get sidetracked from their duties by the unexpected discoveries they make, while stuck on the other side of the social paradigm.
Not unlike 2011’s “Green Hornet,” “21 Jump Street” arrives in theaters with more than a little trepidation from audiences, who are perhaps understandably wary of a big-screen version of a property that doesn’t seem worthy of being taken seriously, if they’ve heard of it at all. But prior knowledge is relevant, if not necessary, in only one scene of the film (which won’t be spoiled here), and the rest is handled so beautifully that it will likely seem more like the first installment in some oddly named but irresistible new franchise. The benefit of a core concept that’s as simple as it is intriguing – cops go undercover in high schools – is that a deeper mythology is superfluous, even if the filmmakers still subtly weave one into the film as a tribute to longtime fans.
Miller and Lord previously directed “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” a quite frankly wonderful animated movie that like “21 Jump Street” operates on a level of total sincerity while still managing to sneakily deconstruct both itself and a handful of clichés that audiences have come to begrudgingly accept. Supported by cinematographer Barry Peterson (“Jumper”), the duo makes a smooth and dynamic transition into live-action filmmaking that can stand up to anything the Michael Bays of the industry do, and then adds a sympathetic edge that makes us care genuinely and deeply about the characters and what’s happening to them. Their film features perhaps the first action scene we’ve ever seen where we cared more about what was happening in a character’s relationship than how many kills he was about to rack up – and then, once it was done, felt simultaneously exhilarated by the visceral power of what was happening immediately, and the emotional stakes of what that set piece took him (and us) away from.
It feels obligatory to mention that this is the first film Jonah Hill has made since losing a significant amount of weight, but only in regards to the fact that the transformation suits the actor well. Although he’s just as funny as always, he seems to be rapidly advancing towards a much stronger screen identity than audiences have seen before, finding a happy and appealing balance between the put-upon nebbishes and wisecracking jerks he’s played in past films. As Schmidt, he’s funny and smart with a self-deprecating edge – the same combination someone might come up with if they grew into themselves after an unenjoyable high school experience – and it’s easy to understand why Larson’s character would be into his. As Jenko, meanwhile, Tatum fully reveals the breadth of his talents, which thus far have been either ignored, disparaged, or under-utilized; in addition to that razor-sharp physique and simmering screen presence, he’s got a remarkable vulnerability and almost shockingly good comedic timing, and the film exploits those contradictory qualities to incredible effect.
Finally, and possibly fundamentally, there’s Michael Bacall’s script. The material here more closely resembles his efforts on “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” than “Project X,” at least in the sense that he’s lending a sensitive or sympathetic edge to all of the characters’ shenanigans, and it proves that he’s got a voice as a writer that articulates honestly the point of view of young characters in a pop-culture-saturated society. Like with the deeply felt video game sitcommery of 'Scott Pilgrim' (all of which is meant to be a sincere compliment), his commentary on cop movies and high school cliques isn’t endlessly referential, it’s immersed in recognizable behavior, which most importantly the characters themselves are aware of, even if they’re helpless to stop it, as with Captain Dickson’s indefatigable consternation. He understands that people know they aren’t characters from a movie or book or game, even if they’re emulating or inspired by them, and he seems to write with a sense of aspiration in mind – that people are always trying to be their best selves, or the ideal “self” they fantasize about, but the realities of life, and peccadilloes of personal choice inevitably get in the way.
Again, that self-awareness permeates every frame of this film, but always to charm viewers, not let them know the filmmakers know they’re smarter than the material they’re working with. When Nick Offerman complains about a lack of creativity and an absence of ideas within “the police department,” he isn’t providing a tongue-in-cheek “way out” if the film fails, he’s throwing down a challenge for Lord and Miller to overcome – and they do. Literally everyone in the film (including them) knows that Hill was a dweeb and Tatum a hunk, but that dynamic is inverted first incidentally, and then conceptually, giving both characters’ journeys an honest and believable trajectory that doesn’t feel like creative contrarianism. And after being weaned on slow-motion gunfights and spectacular explosions, Jenko and Schmidt are disappointed by the mundane particulars of a “real” car chase, but eventually earn their own larger-than-life showdowns, which are charmingly tinged with their personalities and experiences rather than generic clichés.
To argue for the depth of a movie like this seems unnecessary, as it’s meant to be fun and captivating (which it is), whether or not there’s more under its hood (which it has). But in the interest of preemptively protecting it from becoming another cult film with creativity to burn but box office to spare, like in the unfortunate cases of 'Scott Pilgrim' or “MacGruber,” Lord and Miller’s adaptation is not just a great movie, it’s an instant classic. The action is exciting. The humor kills. The characters are interesting. The story is engaging. You’ll be entertained, and you’ll care. “21 Jump Street” is a brilliant, rewarding convergence of incredibly talented people who were of one mind about what they were trying to make, and miraculously they made it. More than merely hilarious, thrilling, intelligent, or involving – any one or two of which alone would be a significant achievement – it’s well-rounded, wonderful, and truly special. [A]