' ' Cinema Romantico: 21 Jump Street

Monday, March 04, 2013

21 Jump Street

"Embrace your stereotypes!" This is what Captain Dickson hollers at his new recruits who he plans to send undercover into a local high school in an attempt to infiltrate a drug ring threatening to expand. Captain Dickson is an angry black man. He, in fact, hollers every word he speaks and every fourth word he speaks (hollers) is generally R-rated. Captain Dickson is played by Ice Cube. In other words, Ice Cube is embracing his own stereotype.

Basing movies on old TV shows is an ancient rite and, far more often than not, a less than successful one. Typically the cinematic version either tries to harden up and make the story "real" or it gets lost in making too many cutesy references to the era in which the original was set and can't find its own footing. "21 Jump Street", with a screenplay by Michael Bacall (Phil Lord and Chris Miller share the directing credit), is wonderfully tongue-in-cheek without getting lost in a nostalgic haze of the Johnny Depp-starring original from the late 80's. Rather, it presents the stereotypes up front and unashamed and then embraces them.

A brief prologue sets the stage. In high school, Jenko (Channing Tatum) was a dumb but charismatic jock and Schmidt (Jonah Hill) was a geeky Eminem-wannabe outcast. Flash ahead seven years. They join the police force. Recognizing the other's strength can help minimize their own flaw, they become pals and eventually partners. Their boyish looks, however, land them in the aforementioned undercover high school program brought back to life from the 80's because "the people behind this lack creativity and they've run out of ideas" (wink, wink - nudge, nudge).

Jenko and Schmidt are enrolled in high school, masquerading as brothers, living in Schmidt's old bedroom at his parents' house, but foul up immediately when they mix up which brother is which and send hapless Schmidt off to drama and imbecilic Jenko off to chemistry. Thus, roles reverse as Jenko is forced to hang with the dorks without girlfriends while Schmidt finds himself rolling with the in-crowd, chilling with the environmentally conscious Eric (Dave Franco) who might be responsible for this whole mystery drug outbreak and falling for his co-lead in the school play, Molly (Brie Larson), who, like any high school crush, seems too cool for her juvenile surroundings.

Oh, "21 Jump Street" does not re-invent the medium and relies on a red herring (because it has to) and its homophobic jokes come across less wink, wink – nudge, nudge than simply sophomoric and while one could argue it benefits from low expectations, well, I am on record as being a staunch opponent of The Expectations Theory. In this case I am against the Theory because to offer it disrespects the very real of craft of Bacall’s script. It’s funny, sure, mixing “Donnie Brasco” and “Superbad” (“You’re in too deep. I found a college application on your desk.”) but it also very much plays on the idea of how the cult of youth can so quickly adapt and shift and leave us behind. Every morning I sit on the train with Chicago kids on their way to school and marvel at their fashion sense and how old they look and how some of them are ALREADY drinking coffee. I think: “How could I possibly survive high school in this modern world?”

Jenko and Schmidt find the hierarchy all out of whack, new types of cliques that never existed, and Jenko can’t figure out how in but a few years time he has been reduced to the bottom of the food chain. He craves the approval he used to have and now that Schmidt has earned the approval he never had he craves to keep earning it.

High school is all about stereotypes. Ah, but beneath the surface of "21 Jump Street's" stereotypes lurks the essential truth.


Andrew K. said...

I told you this was one worth checking out. Sure, it sometimes goes for the easy way out but it's incessantly funny and fun and the Depp cameo is still a great moment of 2012 cinema.

Nick Prigge said...

You did! I knew that Depp cameo was there but by the time it turned up I had forgotten about it. A breath of fresh air.