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21 Jump Street: “Remake” Done Right

By Brock Wilbur · March 17, 2012


The best adaptations bring something new to a pre-existing work, while maintaining the spirit of the original. In that measure, 21 Jump Street is a disaster.

Every element of the original TV series is discarded, especially the tone, in favor of a genre meta comedy mixed with a dash of bromance and lots of profanity. But was that the right call? Absolutely. With such a ridiculous premise as undercover cops embedded in a high school, it would be hard for anyone to take the set-up as seriously in 2012 as they did in 1987.

Maintaining only the loosest of narrative ties allowed directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord to give us a very standard Hollywood remake, albeit with surprisingly strong entertainment value.

Schmidt (Jonah Hill) spent high school tormented by the popular kid, Jenko (Channing Tatum). They wind up in police training together, where an odd friendship develops as they support each others' physical or mental deficiencies. Following a drug bust gone wrong, they are reassigned to the newly revitalized 21 Jump Street unit, where they must infiltrate a local high school and stop the spread of a new designer drug. Pretending to be brothers and moving in with Schmidt's parents gives their new identities credence, but a scheduling mishap results in Jenko taking all the advanced classes while placing Schmidt in the position of infiltrating the cool kids. When he learns his new-found popular friends are the drug dealers, will he turn his back on job and partner, or do the right thing?

A host of excellent minor characters, including Rob Riggle, Nick Offerman, Brie Larson, Ellie Kemper, and Chris Parnell runaway with their scenes, often leaving you disappointed to return to the plot. Those bursts of pure fun are far more engaging than the by-the-numbers drug epidemic mystery. While Jonah Hill (co-writer) delivers a light and likable performance, the real winner here is Channing Tatum. Being forced not only to play a stereotyped version of himself, but also to become the least cool guy in school, he proves a level of genuine talent exists that more directors must find a way to extract.

Congrats, CT. Whether you understand what it means or not, shouting "Kneel before Zod!" has earned you more nerd cred than an entire season of The Big Bang Theory. We’ll politely welcome you into our midst.

It would be impossible to discuss the film without considering the previous works of Lord and Miller. While this is their first live action feature, the duo has dabbled in this thematic territory before. Their cult hit, the wacky cartoon seriesClone High, was an outlandish yet touching spoof of high school social dynamics, and the exaggerated belief that this period is the most important time of anyone's life. Like 21 Jump Street, it thrived on attacking the delicate balance of best-friendship and the lengths guys will travel in pursuit of an unattainable girl.

Their masterful CGI film Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs, despite the far-removed setting and plot, is actually far more important to understanding21 Jump Street. The transition of comic mischief from that world to the real world is flawless, and best exemplified by a chase sequence involving exploding chickens. Despite this film not being written by them, it is structured and performed with such similarity that a few lines of dialogue are almost copied from that script. I might call "shenanigans" on other filmmakers, but you can't deny that it works just as well this time around.

Or maybe you can. My love of Lord and Miller is well documented, so when I say "disappointment" here, it's the same way I used it when discussing Young Adult. In that, this is a fine production, but it could've been so much more. 21 Jump Street does not fail to entertain, and compared to its genre brethren, is miles ahead of the competition. Especially for TV show to movie transition. (Don't believe me? Go watch that Dark Shadows trailer.) And it's undeniably better than all of the other films currently showing at the multiplex. (Especially Project X, also scripted by Michael Bacall.)

So where is the lack? The film enjoys pointing to the fact it uses broad, stereotyped characters, and even makes an excellent explanation for that purpose. But that doesn't make it good. Ice Cube as Captain Dickson delivers line after line that fail to illicit laughter, and the over-reliance on profanity, especially early in the film, seems more like a bid for edginess rather than creating believably profane characters. There are also enough technical inconsistencies to easily see that certain scenes were shot with different conclusions, and were later re-arranged in editing. For example, Schmidt's parents bust a house party, but in the background we can see police lights? And throughout, there are shots that exist in the trailer which only exist in the film's credits, like Hill breaking through the glass of car. I mind this less, as it provided genuine surprises in the film, which I suppose you need after releasing several two minute plus trailers.

Issues aside, the film is well worth your time, and again, much better than you would have thought possible of a 21 Jump Street film. By the standard of "Who could have done better?", Lord and Miller have knocked it out of the park. Measured against their own work, it shows they have room to grow. Both are pretty excellent.