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“21 Jump Street”, starring Jonah Hill (“Superbad”) and Channing Tatum (“Dear John”) as two immature police officers sent to do undercover work at a local high school in an effort to bring down a student-run synthetic drug ring (say that five times fast), tells an absurd story and tells it well.
The film is loosely based on a hit television series that ran from 1987-1991 and featured, among other future stars, Johnny Depp in a breakthrough role.
The movie’s screenplay and the working of its characters are decidedly formulaic. Of course, it turns out that Hill and Tatum attended high school together and were at opposite ends of the social spectrum (Tatum plays the jock and Hill the nerd in the classic “odd couple” routine). And here’s another shocker: when they go undercover, their roles are reversed. The filmmakers even manage to sprinkle in the old veteran versus rookie cop cliché (with Ice Cube as the cynical, long-suffering police captain).
But this derivative plotline is compensated for by the fact that directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (co-directors of “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”) and screenwriters Michael Bacall (“Inglourious Basterds”) and Hill (in his screenwriting debut) understand the limitations of their material. Where the television series was all about teenage angst and melodrama, this film wisely abandons the spirit of its origins and focuses its attention on an unambitious but laudable goal; to entertain its audience at all costs.
Throughout the film, this mainly involves self-consciously vulgar (and often hilarious) comedy, along with slapstick-laden action sequences. And while crude comic gags and chase scenes are beaten to death in most so-called “teenage comedies” made in Hollywood today, the filmmakers balance these elements with the occasional genuinely touching (and surprisingly unsentimental) scene about the social nature of high school.
It also doesn’t hurt that both lead actors are more than up for the task. Hill (as always) is brilliant as the zany, awkward, endearing misfit, and Tatum is perfect as the dead-pan counterpart to Hill’s antics.
“21 Jump Street” isn’t a great work of art, and doesn’t have much in the way of deep philosophy (there’s no black monolith that embodies the mystery of intelligent life, nor is there an all-powerful ring that symbolizes humanity’s self-destructive propensity toward lust for superficial desires). But, in its own unpretentious way, “21 Jump Street” is (I’ll dare say it) a great movie.
I can’t think of the last time I laughed so hard in a theater, nor can I think of another movie aimed at high school students that was so tasteful in its tastelessness (the comedy is crude, to be sure, but it never degenerates to the point where you feel awkward sitting with your friends in a dark room).
There’s something to be said for doing a dirty job in a masterful fashion, and “21 Jump Street” is a masterpiece of teen comedy and the best film of this year so far.
By Mike Presberg