Back to school
No one wanted a 21 Jump Street remake — including the people who remade it
By Matthew Singer 03/15/2012
21 Jump Street
Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Starring: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube, Dave Franco, Brie Larson
Rated R for crude and sexual content, pervasive language, drug material, teen drinking and some violence
All right, show of hands: How many children of the ’80s out there were clamoring for a big-screen version of 21 Jump Street? None? Yeah, that sounds about right. A relic of Nancy Reagan’s America, the television show — a “gritty” cop drama aimed at teenagers — was essentially a long-form public service announcement, framed around a team of undercover police officers youthful enough to infiltrate high schools and solve crimes, usually of the drug-related variety. It helped springboard the career of star Johnny Depp, but that’s about it in terms of the series’ legacy. Of course, in Hollywood’s effort to plunder every last piece of trash from the pop-culture scrap heap, it was only a matter of time before some studio exec pulled the show’s name out of a hat as the next discarded property due for a revamp. No one was asking for it, but that’s never stopped a remake before.
Apparently, Jonah Hill wasn’t too enthused by the prospect of a Jump Street movie, either. Even though he co-wrote this reboot, converting the premise into an action-comedy, it certainly wasn’t out of affection for the source material. It’s standard procedure for a film inspired by an old television show to throw in a few winking references to the original program and poke fun at its more outdated aspects; Hill’s screenplay, written with Michael Bacall (who previously adapted Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), is one of the only recent TV-to-movie updates that seems to be all-out mocking the show it’s based on. Not only that, it’s a movie that directs a level of contemptuousness toward its own existence. “All they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us not to notice,” says Nick “Ron Swanson” Offerman in an early scene, referring to both the newly reopened covert operation headquartered at the titular address and, clearly, the film itself.
If you’re going to revive 21 Jump Street, deprecating self-awareness is the way to go. A straight-faced remake, displaced from the “Just Say No” ’80s, isn’t going to work in an era where kids film their own acid freakouts and upload the videos to YouTube. Although the story is straight out of a typical episode of the TV show — there’s a deadly new designer drug going around a high school, and it’s up to the buddy-cop tandem of insecure brainiac Hill and moronic pretty-boy Channing Tatum to find the supplier — the message isn’t so much “drugs are bad” as “people on drugs are hilarious.” (Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, helmers of 2009’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, imbue a scene of Tatum and Hill inadvertently tripping balls with the lysergic zaniness of a very wigged-out kids show.) But the heavy doses of meta-textual humor have a distancing effect, too. They end up raising the question: If a movie purposely draws attention to its own pointlessness, does that give it any more of a point?
Perhaps the answer to that is in another question: Is it funny? Well, that mostly depends on whether allusions to human genitalia make you giggle. The film gets a lot of mileage out of a pair of running gags, one involving a photo of Hill as a child in which he looks uncannily like a baby Fred Savage, another regarding explosions not going off as action movies have trained audiences to expect. It’s got Rob Riggle and Chris Parnell, two of the most reliable go-to guys for bit parts that instantly make any movie funnier. And Hill’s always good with a one-liner. (As for Tatum, while “hunky lunkhead” is the role he was born to play, he’s still more underwear model than legitimate actor.) But the dick jokes go limp after a while, and once that happens, there isn’t much left. Then, the problem of a comedy that’s extracted its emotional core becomes apparent: It’s hard to care about a film that doesn’t care about itself.