Directed by Phil Lord & Chris Miller
Starring Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Ice Cube
Take away that iconic theme, the church setting, and a couple of visual throwbacks to the original series, and you wouldn’t know 2012’s 21 Jump Street was even based on the TV series of the same name. Tonally and structurally, the film and the series - one of the many prime-time hits produced by the late, great Stephen J.Cannell in the 1980s - are chalk and cheese.
But you know, maybe that’s what works about 21 Jump Street the movie - the fact that it isn’t a remake of a TV show. The series was an over melodramatic, slightly preachy action series about a group of young-looking cops - one of whom was played by then rising star Johnny Depp - who are assigned to task of going undercover in highschool as students. The film features a similar précis, but takes itself far, far, less seriously than the show did.
Writers Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill cleverly decided to write their version of 21 Jump Street as a comedy. Though laughs are the emphasis, the film mirrors real life - just like the original show did - by exploring how it’s now ‘nerds’ that are popular in school, not ‘jocks’ as would have been the case in the ‘80s. It also emphasises how much technology has changed since the show, making a policeman’s work somewhat easier. And there’s obvious humour to be had with the revelation that many of today’s young cops have been raised on a diet of Bruce Willis movies, and therefore chase the thrill, more so than the pride of playing community protector.
Hill and Tatum play former highschool enemies - the former was the chubby loser, the latter the fit jock; of course they clashed! - who reunite as police officers. This time though, they get along - though mostly they’ve bonded because of their equal suckiness as cops. Being rather hopeless at their jobs - they don’t even remember the Miranda rights - the juvenile duo are asked to report to an address on Jump Street where they’ve been nominated to participate in a program - from the ‘80s - that’s just been resurrected.
Upon arriving at a familiar-looking building, Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) are advised - by their gruff captain, played by the smartly-cast Ice Cube - they’ll be going undercover as highschool students at a local institute. First day back at school it’s immediately evident to Schmidt and, especially Jenko, that things have changed a lot since they were at school. For starters, good-looking athletes like Jenko aren’t popular anymore; instead, it’s the smart science-geek and drama-club types that have all the friends and followers.
What works about 21 Jump Street is that, on its own, it’s a legitimately funny and very entertaining movie. And at the same time, it’s also paying homage and much respect to the show that inspired it. Writers Bacall and Hill, with directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord, are obviously huge fans of the original show and wanted to show it some love - while not neglecting the next generation’s needs.
But despite the great cast, the terrific music (Cube’s Straight Outta Compton is a welcome highlight), and the well choreographed action sequences, it’s Bacall and Hill’s script that’s the star here. The duo haven’t simply written a good comedy, full of genuinely well penned gags and characters, but also a movie that successful satisfies the needs of both the contemporary teenager and those who pencilled ‘Tommy Hanson Forever’ into their wooden school desks back in 1988.