Directed by filmmaking duo Phil Lord and Chris Miller, Sony Pictures action-comedy 21 Jump Street (2012) functions well as more that simply an irksome 1980s nostalgia-fest, a fate that has befallen far too many American comedies of similar ilk. Featuring two well-drawn, genuinely humorous performances from odd couple Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, Lord and Miller’s high school romp/cop bromance hybrid may well be the best mainstream US comedy since Adam McKay’s perfectly-pitched The Other Guys (2011).
Despite a distinct aversion to each other during their high school years, former-geek Schmidt (Hill) and former-jock Jenko (Tatum) become best buds after enrolling in the police force together upon graduation. After botching an undercover drug sting, the unlikely duo are reassigned to the 21 Jump Street programme, overseen by the foul-mouthed, consistently irate Captain Dickson (Ice Cube). Returning to their former high school as undercover students, Schmidt and Jenko are charged with infiltrating the dealers and finding the suppliers of a new deadly party drug known as ‘HFS’. However, it doesn’t take long for this oddest of couples to fall back into their childhood personas.
What on paper sounds like a boorish cross between the American Pie franchise and Point Break (1991) actually turns out to be an intelligently-scripted, highly innovative, genre-bending farce. Hill and Tatum are perfectly cast as the two bumbling brothers-from-another-mother, constantly playing of each other and the inverted stereotyped cover roles they find themselves in (due to an administrative error, Schmidt is enrolled in drama, Jenko in science). Tatum is particularly impressive, riffing on the muscular airhead/himbo trope (or “Fake ass handsome McGee”, as he is referred to by Dickson) that has plagued his career up until this point.
Whilst pop references are mercifully restrained to a manageable level, Lord and Miller’s 21st century revamp of 21 Jump Street exhibits clear reverence for its 80s-set TV show source (look out for one of the best cameos this side of 2009’s Zombieland). Upon their reassignment to the titular high school sting, Schmidt and Jenko are informed the people behind the Jump Street revival are content to “recycle shit from the past and hope that nobody will notice”. This self-reflexive statement should tell you all you need to know about dire revamps and reboots – and, importantly, why this self-aware, inventive effort isn’t among their numbers.
Those looking for an enjoyable, well-written modern American comedy will be perfectly served by 21 Jump Street’s smart laughs and remarkably touching bromance. Those looking for yet another lazy, brash and generic Hollywood comedy-by-numbers – a la 2011’s Hot Tube Time Machine et al – would be best served somewhere lower down the contemporary pecking order.