‘21 Jump Street’ fails to stand out in theaters
March 23, 2012
Combine “Superbad” with “Police Academy” and you get “21 Jump Street.” This self-referential, mostly irreverent action/comedy is good for some solid laughs, but tired gags and a few too many flat jokes hold it back from greatness.
Based on a television series from the late 80s, “21 Jump Street” is about an undercover police squad that recruits young-looking officers to pose as high school students. But unlike the series, the movie abandons drama and morals in favor of f-bombs and glorified drug trips.
The movie opens in 2005 with socially awkward Schmidt, played by Jonah Hill, asking out his high school crush to the prom. After she turns him down, cool-kid Jenko, played by Channing Tatum, is on hand to rub salt into his wounds. Flash forward to after graduation and both men are enrolled in the police academy.
Schmidt and Jenko make a textbook odd couple. Schmidt’s book smarts help him to ace his exams, while Jenko’s athleticism helps him to excel at physical challenges. Ideally their strengths would combine to make a perfect partnership, but the duo’s shared immaturity puts them at odds with the chief, played by an unfortunately underutilized Nick Offerman.
While they may not be suited for normal police work, Schmidt and Jenko are perfect candidates for the revived 21 Jump Street program. So with new identities they are enrolled in a local high school to find the source of a new synthetic drug.
“21 Jump Street” is at its most funny when poking fun at youth culture. On the first day of school, former prom king Jenko tries to reclaim his throne of popularity by throwing his backpack over one shoulder, which he refers to affectionately as “one-strapping,” and identifying the social cliques.
Jenko recognizes the jocks, goths and nerds easily enough, but he soon discovers that much has changed since 2005. The cool kids are now a group of hybrid car-driving, environmentally conscious do-gooders. Suddenly the intelligent, thoughtful and tolerant Schmidt, while once an outcast, fits in perfectly.
Although their mission is relatively simple — and is often repeated to them by Ice Cube playing the role of the angry captain — Schmidt and Jenko soon venture off track. After getting caught up in the daily life of high school, they find themselves hosting a party and getting hit on by teachers.
Just as the characters lose focus, so too does the movie start to derail. Undercover police work gives way to high school hijinks and an unlikely love story between Schmidt and a student. There are laughs to be had, but much of the proceedings feel like they could be outtakes from any number of teenage party movies.
Before the plot grinds to a boring halt, the third act kicks in and turns “21 Jump Street” into a surprisingly violent action movie. The shift in tone is jarring, and dominated by a cringe-inducing bad car chase featuring some of the tackiest computer animation in recent memory.
Rehashing ideas from the 80s is a stale trend, an opinion clearly shared by the writers of “21 Jump Street” who regularly poke fun at its concept and source material. But less meta-humor and more originality would have propelled this adequately funny movie into the realm of classic comedy.