Andrew Stanton isn’t the only director who had to make the leap to the big screen from the world of animation in the past 6 months. Sure he might have had to jump the farthest, considering the legacy he had to carry along with him, but his fellow Pixar alum Brad Bird beat him to (and at) the box office with Mission Impossible 4. And now the directors of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, have to come to the front of the class with 21 Jump Street as their show-and-tell.
Again – you thought adapting John Carter was hard.
It’s one thing to have a bunch of digital cricket people getting in MARS WARS while Tim Riggins glistens in a He-Man costume, his goofy space pug nearby, waiting patiently for the next opportunity to to steal the movie out from under everyone else. It’s another to move from the world of animation to the world of live action, with Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum draped across your back like charisma-void saddlebags as you toil over a script that is basically part-comedy, part-necronomicon, trying to resurrect one of the hokiest TV shows of the 80s.
A script that, by the way, bears the name of Michael Bacall, from a story co-created by Jonah Hill. Bacall is the mind behind the – to put it as diplomatically as possible – the garbage-assed Project X. So not only are we dealing with yet another nostalgia trip aimed at an audience that couldn’t possibly be nostalgic for it, we’re dealing with one that comes from the same mental birth canal that crapped out one of the worst teen movies since Zapped.
Also, you don’t have the cachet of having directed two of the highest grossing animated films of all time, cachet that earned you over $300 million dollars worth of patience from a giant multimedia conglomerate. Instead, you’ve got a ridiculously charming sleeper hit on your resume, which is enough cachet to get you $42 million from Sony. And Ice Cube.
So in response to that daunting pile of potential negatives blocking your way, you do the only sensible thing – you kick your movie in the shins. Repeatedly. Until you cant stop laughing at it.
One of Ice Cube’s first lines is a bellowed “Embrace your stereotypes,” a line that belies the cynical cashgrab nature that likely got the film green-lit. But a line previous, uttered by Nick Offerman as a sad-eyed, tired police chief, holds the key to the film’s success–and this film is a success. A big one. Offerman sets the film in motion by assigning his two screw-up officers, Hill and Tatum, to an old, forgotten about special department in the force, one of those things, he says, that people drag out of mothballs and bring back to life for no other good reason than they’re too lazy to come up with something original and they figure people are too stupid to care.
And it’s with that smartassed bit of meta-commentary that Lord and Miller begin conducting their symphony of subversion, tossing away punchlines that other comedy directors would linger on, lingering on punchlines long enough to discover secondary (and tertiary) laughs other directors would leave behind. And throughout it all, undercutting the surface cynicism in the film with real concern and respect for the story they’re trying to tell. If that seems hard to believe, this is a team that managed to tell a heartwarming, uplifting story about a kid looking for parental acceptance by making it rain hamburgers.
But they don’t neglect the action, either. 21 Jump Street came straight off the finely tuned Stephen J. Cannell assembly line in the 80s, and as such, the melodrama and the messages had to be delivered with equal parts foot-races and fistfights. And while there’s no way there’s anything in this adaptation that approaches what Brad Bird did with Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, that doesn’t mean this film doesn’t have its fair share of well-shot car chases and big-ass explosions. And unlike Michael Bay’s films, when you break out into laughter at the excessive gunfire, macho posturing and gratuitous explosions? You’re supposed to.
The film begins in 2005, quickly setting up the fact that Hill is a sad dork, dressed like Eminem, who always chokes under pressure–especially when that pressure is applied by Tatum, playing a lunkheaded jock. They are both immediately brought low, only to be reunited five years later at Police Academy, where they bond over shared failures, and help themselves through their classes to become real, honest-to-god cops, albeit the kind who wear short-shorts, ride mountain bikes and don’t even get a siren. They, of course, screw up completely, and hence, Offerman’s assignment to 37 Jump Street, or whatever it’s called.
There, they meet their new commanding officer, Ice Cube, who quickly assigns them to stop the distribution of a new drug being dealt by the supremely smarmy Dave Franco, and his kinda-sorta-not-really girlfriend, Brie Larson. Their only rules? They can’t have sex with the students, they can’t get them drunk, and they can’t get expelled.
At this point, the film becomes an almost perfect blend of Not Another Teen Movie and Hot Fuzz. You wouldn’t tell it from the pedigree of the script, but this movie does have a brain in its head, and everything that Bacall apparently got wrong with his repugnant Project X, gets made into magic via the steady hands of Lord and Miller. There’s commentary on the awkward existence of being a teenager, as well as the observance that, while it’s entirely possible today’s generation actually has learned from the mistakes of those that preceded it, kids are always going do stupid things, because they are young, and they don’t know 2/3rds as much as they think they do.
I say “almost perfect” because there are a few rough edges. The pacing flags as the rote plotting straight out of the show’s heyday lurches towards its conclusion, and its’ obvious that those Lord and Miller’s steady hands had to do a fair amount of massaging in post-production, with more than a few obvious ADR’d lines and hasty cuts, unfortunately making it obvious there are missing things in this movie.
One of those rough edges is not Channing Tatum. In fact – this is his movie, straight up. He gladly subverts his own bland, beefy persona from movies like G.I. Joe and The Eagle, and fits the charming superstar role that studios have been trying force him into for years. It turns out Channing Tatum is a legitimate movie star. Someone just had to put him in a comedy first. And he goes after every joke with no reservations, dry-humping, finger gagging, panic-barfing, and pratfalling with the sort of reckless fury that would cause Johnny Knoxville to give an admiring golf-clap.
This film earns its R too, proving the Cloudy directors are just as deft with a gross-out gag as they are with something fun for the whole family. But again, they never succumb to pure crassness. Well…okay, they do: Just once, at the very end, courtesy a digustilarious bit of comedy from Rob Riggle. But it’s forgivable, especially after a party scene midway through the film that manages to pack more comedy, excitement, and voyeuristic thrill into 10 minutes than was contained in the entirety of Project X, and it’s bookended by scenes that legitimately test both Hill and Tatum’s skills as actors. That’s not to say you’re gonna be seeing clips from this movie at next year’s Oscars, not by a longshot. But they take these cardboard cutouts and make them real characters.
Maybe the film benefits from low expectations: Nobody expected much from a 21 Jump Street remake, and nobody expected much from Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. But while everyone was looking to Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton to show off how strong their skills were, Phil Lord and Chris Miller took their script, their 42 million, and Ice Cube (who embraces his stereotype to perfection) and made one of the most satisfying action comedies of the last 5 years.