Apr 7, 2012
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What puts "21 Jump Street" ahead of the "Starsky & Hutch" movie a few years back, for example, is a simple matter of modesty and scale. Early on, Tatum's character Jenko, stuck on bike patrol with his friend and partner Schmidt (Hill), mutters: "I really thought this job would have more car chases and explosions." They come eventually, of course. But getting there is well over half the fun, because the script, by "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World"adapter Michael Bacall, charts the shifting landscape of high school cliques and dynamics in very clever ways.
enko and Schmidt weren't friends in high school, as we learn in the 2005-set prologue. Jenko was the jock triumphant and a lousy student, and Schmidt (sporting an impressive mouthful of braces) spent most of his waking hours being embarrassed by his parents. A few years later, graduating from the police academy together, they've become pals, leaving enough of their high school selves behind to bridge the former social gap. They're ready, in other words, to test their friendship by going back to high school, undercover, assigned by their superior (Ice Cube, snarling every second) to arrest the dealers and suppliers of a dangerous new synthetic drug.
The school yearbook maven, played by Dave (brother of James, and it's obvious) Franco, is the connection. Schmidt lands the lead in the school musical ("Peter Pan"), while Jenko struggles to learn basic science concepts, no picnic for a guy who never memorized the Miranda rights. "You have a right to remain an attorney," he tells a perp at one point.
The idea behind Jenko and Schmidt's disorientation relates to how much high school life has changed in a short time. "Environmental awareness, being tolerant ... if only I'd been born 10 years later!" Schmidt says, awe-struck. The movie takes the romance between Schmidt and the dealer's sometime girlfriend (Brie Larson, a great match for Hill's easygoing delivery) more seriously than you expect, which is also true of the tetchy friendship between our heroes, the cops lost in John Hughesville. Little turns of phrase stick with you, as when the drama teacher (Chris Parnell) begins a self-important lecture: "When I was a young actor starting out in New York ... state ... Albany, to be exact ..."
The drug humor in "21 Jump Street" carries its own distinction, in that it's actually humor. Cornered by the dealer, desperate not to have their cover blown, Jenko and Schmidt ingest the potentially deadly hallucinogen. Side effect No. 3 is "over-falsity of confidence," illustrated by Schmidt's riotous acts of competitive sabotage on the track field, and by Jenko's hyperviolent drum solo in band class. We're not talking "The Philadelphia Story" here. It's too bad "21 Jump Street" settles for a familiar mixture of action, gore and slack pacing for its final half-hour. But if any of what I have described above sounds amusing to you, well ... you have the right to remain an attorney.
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