“21 Jump Street” energetic, refreshing action-comedy

When good high-school movies are made, it’s an occasion rare enough to warrant high praise & attention. Ditto that for buddy-cop movies. But when both of these are pulled off without a hitch while also reviving a long-irrelevant 1980’s television program, it just makes for damn good entertainment. “21 Jump Street” is a shot of adrenaline into three or four different genres; freshening established formulas by acknowledging their camp and then cranking up their goofiness.

An update on the show that gave Johnny Depp his career, “21 Jump Street” takes things in a decidedly comedic direction. Schmidt and Jenko, played by Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, went through high-school labelled as the fat nerd and dumb jock, making their partnership in their police academy all the more shocking. Schmidt’s got the brains and Jenko the brawn, and their unlikely dynamic lands the two in an undercover operation dubbed “Jump Street”. In essence, the two are sent back to high-school to infiltrate the “popular kids” and shut down production of a new synthetic drug spreading throughout the school.

In an unlikely twist of stereotypes though, Schmidt ends up with the popular kids and Jenko with the nerds, forcing them to re-think both their roles in the operation and as friends, in general. “21 Jump Street” seems to be full of little twists like this, ones that play with our expectations while sticking with the general structure we expect. This sort of formula-tinkering affects every aspect of “21 Jump Street”, starting with the two leads, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum.

It goes without saying that these two are absolute dynamite together, with the sort of expert timing and dead-panning audiences came to expect of the silent era. Perhaps most importantly is that the two have an adorable bromance, one that the audience roots for at all times and against all odds. But the two are not afraid to tinker with their public personas, Tatum in particular really poking fun at the dumb, raw masculine image he’s built up for himself. Both leads really re-define their skill palate, with Tatum demonstrating comedic chops and Hill a tremendous writing skill. (co-writing the script with “Project X”/”Scott Pilgrim” vet Michael Bacall)

If nothing else I admired the tremendous energy the crew brought to the picture: There’s a sort of goofy, happy-go-lucky tone to the humor here that makes it feel a lot more spontaneous and in-the-moment. In other words, more believable. The care taken to develop the side-characters is appreciated: from Ice Cube’s foul-mouthed, black sergeant who frequently brings up how foul-mouthed and black he is, to Brie Larson as the plucky romantic interest for Hill’s character, and Dave Franco as the cocky, pretentious popular kid whose illegal product sets the plot into motion. Dave is every ounce as charming and talented as brother James, by the way. The film also sports a killer celebrity cameo, the less of which I reveal the better.

The action in this film is surprisingly confident, a memorable middle-act highway chase stimulating both laughter and adrenaline. What surprised me a bit was the sloppiness of editing at points: it’s fairly obvious a wealth of material has been left out of the final cut, leaving unexplained beats where character-driven moments should have been, leaving pauses in lieu of comedy. The script seemed fairly tight in its vision, so perhaps directors Phil Lord & Chris Miller are at fault here. But no matter: They’ve crafted an energetic, fresh vision out of many parts stale and formulaic, with as many belly-laughs per minute as I can recall in a while. B+

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