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Too Cool for Old School

21 Jump Street (2012)

Scott Garfield/Columbia Pictures

Arriving hot on the heels of the critically maligned “Project X” comes writer Michael Bacall’s interpretation of the ’80s teen-cop caper, “21 Jump Street” — the show that thrust Johnny Depp into the limelight. One might be forgiven for letting out an audible groan in the expectation of more equally crass fare. But this is a completely different beast; and it’s a bloody funny one at that.

A mid-noughties prologue introduces veritable odd couple, awkward wannabe Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and dumb jock Jenko (Channing Tatum) as they finish high school on very different rungs of the social ladder. Crossing paths again at police academy, they bond — with Schmidt’s brains and Jenko’s brawn proving mutually beneficial to their graduation prospects. As the naïve rookies badly fudge their first bust — in hilarious, bike-based fashion — they are busted down to Jump Street to work undercover.

From the off, Mr Bacall’s razor-sharp writing is allowed to come to the fore and his screenplay is imbued with a pithy, self-aware tone that deliciously pokes fun at cinema’s current remake culture. With Ice Cube’s pitch-perfect Captain Dickson busting balls, Schmidt and Jenko find themselves back in high school tasked with infiltrating a ring of dealers and finding the supply of a mystery drug HFS that has already cost one student’s life.

What ensues is typical fish-out-of-water fare, as Schmidt and Jenko quickly realize that a lot has changed since their high-school heyday — with one brilliantly observed debate about backpack etiquette perfectly capturing the minutiae of playground politics and how out-of-touch with it they are. Coupled with a convenient mix-up of their cover stories, the two soon find themselves having to contend with much of the high school difficulties that they experienced the first time round.

Some very silly, tongue-in-cheek moments soon transpire during their attempts to hook up with the dealers, who are led by eco cool kid Eric (Dave Franco) in a deliciously subversive swipe at high-school clichés. A house-party fight is a particularly bawdy affair.

As Jenko and Schmidt’s role reversal comes full circle, the first signs of tension emerge between them; and it’s a credit to Mr. Bacall’s writing and the turns of Mr. Hill and, in particular, Mr. Tatum that these characters actually encourage sympathy. Meanwhile, the self-referential tone continues apace as genre conventions come under attack: A running gag concerning explosions proves right on the money. With proceedings coming to a head in a frantic and, quite frankly, hilarious finale on prom night, it’s impossible not to be completely swept up in the utter ridiculousness of it all.

Mr. Bacall can take much of the credit for his crude, yet witty and self-referential screenplay, but the real stars of the show are Mr. Hill and, more surprisingly, Mr. Tatum, who possesses great comedic timing. The chemistry between the leads holds everything together, while solid support from Ice Cube and Rob Riggle (as the maniacal Mr. Walters) guarantee laughs aplenty. Yes, the plot might be as wafer thin as Mr. Hill’s waistline, but it’s a terrifically enjoyable romp nonetheless.


Opens on March 16 in the United States and Britain.  

Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller; written by Michael Bacall, based on a story by Mr. Bacall and Jonah Hill, and the television series created by Patrick Hasburgh and Stephen J. Cannell; director of photography, Barry Peterson; edited by Joel Negron; music by Mark Mothersbaugh; production design by Peter Wenham; costumes by Leah Katznelson; produced by Neal H. Moritz and Mr. Cannell; released by Columbia Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Jonah Hill (Schmidt), Channing Tatum (Jenko), Brie Larson (Molly Tracey), Dave Franco (Eric Molson), Rob Riggle (Mr. Walters), DeRay Davis (Domingo) and Ice Cube (Captain Dickson).


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