“They’re revamping a program from the eighties because they’ve got no creativity and they’re really fucking lazy.” Those are the words of an angry commissioner when he assigns rookie cops Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) to 21 Jump Street, the police force’s undercover unit for infiltrating high schools. It’s exactly that self-aware sense of humour that makes Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s reboot of the Johnny Depp television series so enjoyable. A teen-comedy-action-movie-cop-thriller-remake, 21 Jump Street (2012) is a surprisingly sharp film that mixes several genres together – and then subverts them all.
The film’s opening is littered with obvious jokes, as the inept officers patrol round town on bicycles, forgetting how to arrest people properly (“You have the right to be an attorney?”), but then our duo relocate to high school and the smarts kick in – you won’t stop laughing from here until the end. Michael Bacall’s witty script starts by swapping the roles around, with Schmidt pretending to be a sporty jock and handsome lug Jenko stuck in science lessons with turned-on teacher Ms. Griggs (Ellie Kemper). Not content with that, Bacall also flips the school’s social hierarchy on its head – the cool kids don’t punch the ‘dorks’ any more or ‘one-strap’ their backpacks. Now they wear their bags with two straps and worry about the state of the environment – they also deal drugs.
As the cops track down the young dealers, 21 Jump Street fall into a deceptively conventional teen movie format. There are parties and proms, but there are also class productions of Peter Pan and stop-motion drug sequences that turn people’s heads into ice creams – it’s a real treat to see Lord and Miller carry over their absurd brand of humour from 2009 animation Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. The twin directors also prove a dab hand at live action set pieces – car chases are undermined by constantly non-exploding vehicles and a violent shoot-out is interrupted by an entertaining cameo. Amid the well-paced chaos, there’s buckets of blood, a ton of bad language and even a sequence where someone is shot in the penis, but perhaps the most striking aspect of 21 Jump Street is just how harmless it all is.
The film’s crude jokes and toilet humour are balanced out well by the two fine leads: Hill is hilarious and instantly likeable, Ice Cube’s irate Captain Dickson splits sides with stereotypical rants about black people giving stereotypical rants, whilst Tatum’s deadpan talent produces the best role of his career. In an anarchic remake that refuses to be anything like its source material, Tatum’s unexpected comic talent might actually be the biggest subversion of them all. Who knew the G.I. Joe star had it in him?