Friday, March 16, 2012

21 Jump Street: Frequently stumbles

21 Jump Street (2012) • View trailer
Three stars. Rating: R, for pervasive profanity, crude and sexual content, teen drinking and drug use, and violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.16.12

Things must be pretty bad in Hollywood, if this is the week’s pick of the litter.

Having stumbled their way into learning who has been supplying an insidious
new designer drug to high school kids, Jenko (Channing Tatum, left) and
Schmidt (Jonah Hill) duck a ferocious hail of bullets and wonder what to do next.
Although not the thorough train wreck suggested by its previews, 21 Jump Street isn’t much to write home about. It’s yet another exasperating, big-screen “re-imagining” of a vintage TV drama that has — in the hands of writers Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill (who also stars) — been transformed into a dopey comedy.

I simply don’t understand this trend. We’ve seen it several times before, with equally lame big-screen spoofs of I Spy and Starsky & Hutch. These are not familiar, name-brand franchises, as with Tom Cruise’s much more reverential — and successful — update of Mission: Impossible.

No, only the original fans continue to care about stuff like I Spy, Starsky & Hutch and 21 Jump Street ... and they’re guaranteed to be infuriated by such disrespectful treatment.

Alternatively, the modern target audience coveted by these remakes isn’t old enough to recognize the references, so why bother? Is it that difficult come up with original titles and characters? Is it really necessary to insult folks who carry happy memories of the original small-screen versions?

More to the point, such re-boots would be a lot more tolerable if they were better movies.


The original 21 Jump Street, one of the then-fledgling Fox Network’s first shows, ran from 1987 through ’91; it updated the “cool” premise of an even earlier show, The Mod Squad (1968-73). In both cases, police departments sent baby-faced cops to infiltrate various aspects of youth culture. The trio forming the Mod Squad went after “establishment adults” preying upon groovy counter-culture types; 21 Jump Street enrolled its undercover detectives in a “typical” high school, where they confronted drug pushers, teenage prostitutes and clandestine killers ... you know, the usual high school issues.

Granted, there’s plenty of room for parody here, starting with the belief that twentysomethings could effectively blend with younger, smaller and less mature kids, and this update of 21 Jump Street does have plenty of fun with that concept. (Hill is 28; co-star Channing Tatum is 31.) But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This film opens with a prologue that finds our eventual heroes — Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) — making the least of their actual final year in high school. Schmidt is a woefully geeky loser, complete with braces and impossible hair: a stereotype Hill displays to perfection. Jenko, in contrast, is a bullying slacker who couldn’t pass a test if his life depended on it ... assuming, of course, that he’s in a class long enough to be handed an exam in the first place.

Jenko loves to humiliate Schmidt, who fears his larger, stronger tormentor.

Ah, but each is a “tortured soul” in his own way: more alike than either would care to admit. Or so we need to believe.

Flash-forward a decade, at which point our two misfits wind up in the same police academy training class. Schmidt has the smarts to help Jenko pass the written coursework; Jenko knows how to get his rotund companion into shape (sort of). Suddenly, they become best friends. And full-time cops.

But still screw-ups, as their first attempt at a bust demonstrates.

Their weary captain, wanting them gone, reassigns Schmidt and Jenko to a secret undercover unit run from a disused chapel at 21 Jump St. Their new boss, Capt. Dickson (Ice Cube), runs a squad of youthful officers, etc. Schmidt and Jenko are enrolled at a high school where a kid has just died after swallowing a new designer drug that sends users through spiraling waves of emotional highs and lows.

The assignment: Find the schoolyard pusher and then back-trace to identify the supplier.

The film’s best running gag is revolves around the new social order that has emerged in high school culture. Jenko’s slacker arrogance, which once made him way-popular, now is met with disdain by tree-hugging social activists who view egotistical tyrants as the lowest form of pond scum. Schmidt’s sensitivity and dweebish ways, in contrast, now have become fashionable.

Jenko, out of self defense, finds himself hanging out with a trio of computer nerds: kids he never would have glanced at, back in the day. Now, however, “nerd” is the new cool. Schmidt becomes something of a hero to the desirable Molly (Brie Larson), particularly when he lands the lead role in the school theater production of Peter Pan.

This upside-down dynamic is pretty funny, particularly as Jenko gradually connects with his new geeky buddies (and Tatum nicely plays on his oversized, bull-in-a-china-shop contrast to his diminutive companions).

Unfortunately, most of what passes for dialogue, the rest of the time, involves little more than the crass, crude vulgarity that constitutes “buddy chat” these days. If 1983’s “Scarface” became notorious for its astonishing number of F-bombs, this film probably sets a new standard for references to male genitalia. Demi Moore couldn’t have known, when she unleashed her ironically barbed snarl of contempt in 1997’s G.I. Jane, that it would become such a tiresome comedy catch-phrase.

One wonders, as well, if such overuse of these three words reflects latent homophobia ... but I’ll let smarter sociologists work that one out.

Anyway, Schmidt grows quite fond of Molly, although he remains unsure of her actual availability; she seems somehow attached to Eric (Dave Franco), the school’s ultra-hip alpha dog. Jenko, meanwhile, has drawn the attention of a teacher (Ellie Kemper) whose interest is far more carnal than collegiate.

That sidebar never really goes anywhere. Probably just as well.

Speaking of teachers, Rob Riggle’s Coach Walters has a habit of spouting crass non-sequiturs that aren’t nearly as funny as he — or the scripters — seem to think. No fault of Riggle’s; he can’t help the dialogue shoveled into his mouth.

Hijinks, car chases and various other skirmishes ensue, as our two heroes stumble their way up the drug-running food chain. Continuity also begins to suffer, most notably as several major characters wind up using the same drug — for comic effect, of course — but somehow don’t die, like the first kid. Just lucky, I guess.

The tone also changes, as we reach the third act. Up to this point — vulgarity, casual drug use, recreational drinking and sex aside — the storyline has been benign, the tone light and frothy. Suddenly, mimicking the equally bewildering plunge into violence that characterized the final chapter of 2008’s Pineapple Express, things turn unpalatably nasty and bloody.

Nor can we be surprised, given this script’s fondness for penis jokes, that a climactic “gag” one-ups the bit of male flotsam caught on camera, before being devoured, in 2010’s ultra-gory remake of Piranha. That’s the trouble with shattering the boundaries of good taste: Imitation always has been the sincerest form of Hollywood flattery.

In fairness, directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller — who previously brought us 2009’s family-friendly animated hit, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (go figure) — know full well that this juxtaposition of vulgarity and violence is successful with today’s exploitation crowd; after all, Pineapple Express took in just south of $100 million.

Viewers with delicate sensibilities therefore are advised to proceed with caution.

Still, it’s a shame that lowest-common-denominator coarseness so frequently overpowers this film’s genuinely funny bits. Franco is great as a smug smart-ass, while Hill and Tatum are a stitch together; I laughed each time somebody accused Tatum’s Jenko of being “40 or something.”

Then, too, Lord and Miller uncork some cameo casting surprises, about which I’ll say no more ... except to suggest that you might want to look up the stars of the original TV series.

So yes, this revised and often repellant 21 Jump Street has its moments: too few for my taste, but then I rather doubt that Lord, Miller, Bacall and Hill care about my preferences.

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