SXSW ’12 Review: “21 Jump Street” Plays Like Gangbusters

There’s a moment of perfection in “21 Jump Street” — one of many, I might add — at the end of the film’s second act where a character onscreen actually says organically, “And that’s the end of our second act.” It’s a throwaway line that’s doesn’t even register a laugh without thinking about it, but once you realize how much work went into making it possible – the fact that there’s an entire high school production of “Peter Pan” created just for that punchline to work and the timing of it within the story of the film – it’s indicative of the attention to detail that makes it impossible to believe that it was born out something so cynical as recycling a mildly beloved ‘80s TV series.

Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the filmmakers behind the new “Jump Street,” are well aware of this and say as much almost verbatim through a stern-faced lieutenant (Nick Offerman) who instructs fresh-from the-academy scrubs Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) that they’ll be resuming a ludicrous, discarded long ago program that places cops undercover as high school students. Once classmates and polar opposites at the notably generic Senior High School, the two have since bonded out of necessity as the dimwitted Jenko’s just smart enough to know he needs Schmidt’s brains to balance out his brawn, though even together they’re not all that formidable. Nonetheless, they’re assigned to infiltrate a drug ring at the local high school, necessitating the two to move back into Schmidt’s parents’ house and essentially pick up where they left off as seniors to learn who’s passing around a mysterious acid-like drug called HFS.

21JumpStreetIceCubeBut in perhaps the most brilliant stroke of the story hatched by Hill and “Scott Pilgrim” scribe Michael Bacall, things have changed in just the seven years since Schmidt and Jenko took their SATs. The cool kids are no longer the jocks, but as Jenko remarks to his dismay, “crunchy granola dudes” who brag about their environmentally friendly cars and insert sophisticated-sounding gobbledygook like “Cha feel” into regular conversation, a development that pushes the socially awkward Schmidt into the limelight while Jenko hangs out with the science geeks to help him hack into phones. While nods to the original series and even a handful of cameos work their way in, the film transcends its source material fairly quickly to reveal a comedy where Schmidt, the unpopular kid in his teens, gets in too deep as he starts to feel the sensation of being accepted, and Jenko has trouble accepting such an upside-down reality.

None of this should probably work as well as it does, but the chemistry between Hill and Tatum is arguably even more palpable than when Hill partnered with Michael Cera in “Superbad” and Lord and Miller, who last directed “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” bring the same kind of energy and enthusiasm that made the animated film such a welcome surprise. Though Ice Cube regales in saying the “F-word” more than he ever did in N.W.A. as the duo’s commanding officer and there’s politically incorrect gags at every turn, the humor is refreshingly mischievous rather than mean-spirited with two actors at its center who appear to genuinely like each other and are somewhat in awe of what the other is capable of.

The film is also generous to its supporting cast, giving Cube a chance to remind audiences who he was before all those family-friendly movies and allows nice character beats for its younger cast including Brie Larson as Schmidt’s eventual object of affection, Dave Franco as the drug ring’s front and Dax Flame as Jenko’s lab partner. Every character in the film has an extra bit of dimension, which shouldn’t come as a surprise for anyone who followed the directors’ previous work in television on such shows as “Clone High” and the early years of “How I Met Your Mother.” But it’s especially impressive within the world “21 Jump Street” exists in, a place that acknowledges its ridiculous origins by being more ridiculous and taking tropes of any number of genres – action, comedy – and twisting them just slightly for maximum effect.

What keeps the characters grounded, even as the muscle-bound Tatum struts around in shirts that read “Beauty is Boring” and Cube’s Captain Dickson tells his charges to “embrace your stereotypes,” is the affection the creative team has for everyone and everything on screen. With the beats of each character and plot point worked out so thoroughly, every scene is as potentially explosive, either in hysterics or otherwise, because it somehow finds a very relatable core, be it an epic car chase where Jenko and Schmidt have to drive a driver’s ed car with two steering wheels or the more subtle way the two forge relationships inside the school. Sure, references to “Glee” and Robert Downey Jr.’s drug years may not hold up quite as well in 20 years, but in an era of disposable pop culture, “21 Jump Street” is anything but, likely to be namechecked for a lot longer.

“21 Jump Street” opens wide on March 16th. It premieres at SXSW on March 12th.

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