It was at last year’s South by Southwest Film Festival, during a roundtable with the principals involved with the Duplass brothers’ comedy Cyrus, that I wished a pre-slimmed down, pre-Moneyball Jonah Hill good luck with his upcoming 21 Jump Street project. Having read of its development up to that point most were probably bemoaning the fact that Hollywood was again recycling another television property into a feature film. But it appeared that Hill, who stars and co-wrote the story with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World scribe Michael Bacall, was looking to do more than cash-in on a mostly forgotten late ‘80s/early ‘90s TV relic that was a launching pad for Johnny Depp.
With 21 Jump Street Jonah Hill shows he has as much love for this television show that Jason Segel has for the Muppets. And considering the number of bad TV-to-film translations out there, it proves that the best approach is from someone whose fandom allows them to make something that appeals to old fans and make new ones in the process. After the screening I attended I was compelled to dig out my complete series box set and revisit the series again. And it’s a good thing, too, because I made a correlation in relation to Channing Tatum’s character.
Considering there was little demand for a spin-off of this 1987-1991 Fox television crime drama, the filmmakers decided to be less like the original Stephen J. Cannell series and make it a cinematic cocktail that’s one part high school comedy, two parts buddy film, with some Odd Couple vermouth to kick it up a notch.
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are that Odd Couple but the mold they fit into doesn’t involve one living like a slob or the other being a neurotic neat freak. Instead, the two fall into the stereotypical high school cliques. Attending the same high school, Jenko (Tatum) was the top jock who looked like he had a one-way pass to success with his good looks and arm strength. Schmidt (Hill) was a nerdling whose braces would clamp shut making him unable to ask girls to the prom. Well, his nervousness played a role.
Keeping the opening prologue brief allows us to skip pass all the bullying and douchebaggery that may have involved Jenko and Schmidt. It also steers our eyes away from Tatum’s ridiculous hairpiece and Hill’s Eminem dye job. When we meet them seven years later they are enrolled in the same police academy – sadly, Jenko couldn’t land a 1502 SAT score like Zack Morris on Saved by the Bell. Both have changed, though they haven’t grown up. Jenko, at first, mocks Schmidt when he recognizes him but they soon become friends as they complement each other’s weaknesses. Schmidt aces the paper tests, while Jenko dominates when it comes to the physical ones.
After their first bust sees the perp walk on a technicality, Schmidt and Jenko are pulled from bicycling cop duty (what is this, Pacific Blue?) and sent to a rundown church at 21 Jump Street. It is there where they become part of a revitalized undercover investigating unit that had been out of commission for two decades. Ice Cube is their boss, playing the typical angry captain who is amazed at the sheer ineptitude of these two rookies.
From there it becomes like the 21 Jump Street television show, only highly exaggerated, with Schmidt and Jenko infiltrating a high school drug ring. With Jonah Hill we know to expect laughs from the characters he’s played in comedies like Superbad. But the real surprise is the comedic timing and presence of Channing Tatum. Having had a string of supporting roles before breaking through with Step Up and a few romantic dramas either adapted from Nicholas Sparks novels or used as a point of reference (Dear John, The Vow), it is his role as Jenko that may have guys reevaluating the 32-year-old Alabamian heartthrob. 32? Way too old to be enrolled in high school, even if it is secretively.
To their credit, Hill and Bacall aren’t remissed to point out at how preposterous it is for these guys to be undercover in high school. They are too damn old. The collaborative screenplay also acknowledges how much the high school environment has changed. Is it cooler to carry your backpack strung over one shoulder or to use both? Bacall, who also came up with the story and screenplay for Project X, a misfire of a found-footage teenage comedy but one that illustrates what’s wrong with the youth of today, has helped to break from the norm of what is expected in a buddy-cop comedy with role reversal of Schmidt-Jenko high school version 2.0. The comedy that came to mind while watching was Kid ‘n Play’s Class Act but here we get added car chases and drug-induced shenanigans.
Good teenage comedies are rare and the buddy-cop formula is drawn out, but unite the two and you get a winning combination. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum play off each other so well and in situations that are outside their comfort level (Hill as a world-class high school sprinter? Sure why not.) Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, creators of the short-lived Clone High and the directors of the animated hit Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, provide competent direction when it comes to action sequences (Michael Bay who?) and navigating the halls of high school.
21 Jump Street is a comedy that most will write off as a cash grab with a they made that show into a movie? type of response, but it works much better than you might think. From its dialogue littered with pop-culture references to the hidden admission that Jonah Hill is well aware of the original TV crime drama (the name of Tatum’s character is taken from the group’s original captain, played by Frederic Forrest, prior to being replaced by Steven Williams), this adaptation gives me hope that future TV shows to film translations make an effort to not stick with convention and experiment with the original source material.
Director: Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Notable Cast: Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Ice Cube, Ron Riggle, Brie Larson, Dave Franco
Writer(s): Michael Bacall, based on the television series created by Patrick Hasburgh and Stephen J. Cannell