Before they made 21 Jump Street, the first and only other feature co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller made was the surprisingly well-reviewed animated comedy Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. It’s a little surprising that their remake/reboot of a Steven Bochco-era relic is liberally doused with f-bombs—less so that it plays like a “Funny or Die” sketch expanded to feature length. But what’s really surprising is that, for the most part, it’s pretty terrific.
The original television show, with its gimmick of having real cops going undercover as high school students, is singlehandedly responsible for catapulting Johnny Depp into the American pop-culture stratosphere. The movie has no purchase on the peppy, action-packed, yet safe-for-middle-America territory staked out by the series, which is sandwiched somewhere between Parker Lewis Can’t Lose and The Commish in terms of tone. Lord and Miller do something a little unprecedented, however, something that eluded even the great Brad Bird when he made his transition to live-action films with last year’s Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol: They made a live-action film that, up until around the final third, moves like a cartoon, fleet of foot, weightless, yet somehow deceptively physical. Shots are trimmed to the cuticles, and then a few frames more, so that already brisk sequences (the fight at Schmidt’s party, the showdown in the auditorium) achieve escape velocity.
Matching the all-cards-on-the-table awareness of last year’s The Muppets, an early scene throws the film under the bus for being a cynical, blatant rehash of a nearly forgotten icon of ‘80s pop culture. The audience is cut loose to enjoy the un-realness of what follows, which is basically a quasi-remake of The Other Guys, in which the pretty-boy cop and the nerd cop team up to take down evildoers, in a surreal, spoof-intensive environment. Amazingly, Lord and Miller are more than up to the task of matching Adam McKay’s underrated comedy, laugh for laugh.
Jonah Hill, as we’ve come to realize by this point, has an almost unlimited reservoir of “the Jonah Hill shtick,” i.e. the mildly chubby man-child who’s armed with just enough self-confidence (and pent-up, explosive intelligence) to win the affection of a beautiful girl, tame a psychotic rock star, and broker million-dollar baseball contracts. Much of the film is powered by Hill’s seemingly limitless, renewable energy. Channing Tatum is, obviously, new to madcap farce, but he’s the ideal straight man. He doesn’t “look funny,” at all, but his gift for physical comedy is one of the film’s best surprises.
Like many almost-great comedies, 21 Jump Street is frontloaded with the best go-for-broke gags and lines. This fundamental design flaw translates to a final third that stalls out several times. Also, and this was a conundrum Matthew Vaughn seemed to have licked when he made Kick-Ass (perhaps because the gear shifts were smoother), there doesn’t seem to be anything funny about characters getting shot and spraying blood everywhere. Whatever talents Lord and Miller bring to the table, and they seem to be in abundance, they don’t have the right feet to walk in Neveldine/Taylor’s shoes.