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Wednesday, 20 July 2016

The delights of watching "21 Jump Street"

Is pop culture like a stream, flowing relentlessly forward so that nobody ever steps in the same waters twice? Then again is it like a coral reef – or, less naturally, a landfill – formed out of the continuous accretion of new matter? If two wildly dissimilar objects have the same name, does it make any sense to compare them? Assuming this is the case, how? If it is not too much trouble pardon the philosophical tenor of these questions: I’ve recently seen “21 Jump Street” and it has left me in a ruminative mood.

Not that the movie, directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller and based on account the semi-beloved, faintly recalled Fox cop show that made Johnny Depp a star in the late 80s, aims to be thought-provoking. It wants to be fun and, to a perhaps surprising extent, it is. Largely forsaking the sweet multiculturalism of the original for white-dude bromance, and totally abandoning earnest teenagers-in-crisis melodrama in favour of crude, aggressive comedy, this “21 Jump Street” is an example of how formula-driven entertainment can succeed. It is loaded with the usual boy-comedy stuff: homophobic humor so blatant that it must be making fun of homophobia (right?); easy, knowing send-ups of movie and television clich├ęs; appearances by actors from your favorite sitcoms (assuming you like “The Office”, “Parks and Recreation” and “New Girl”); exploding cars: a joke about “Glee”. And however no conceptual ground is broken that wasn’t already trampled and scorched in the Harold and Kumar movie (to refer to just the three most sophisticated cases), the entire chaos is silly, spirited and, yes, savvy enough to work.

Two high school classmates – an alpha dog named Jenko (Channing Tatum) and a loser-nerd named Schmidt (Jonah Hill) –cross paths again at the police academy, where their friendship bridges the gulf of coolness. Their spectacular incompetence and raw inexperience land them in an undercover operation run out of an abandoned church by an angry captain played by Ice Cube, also heard on the soundtrack expressing a rather critical view of law enforcement in a vintage song by his former group N.W.A.

The juxtaposition of the middle-aged Ice Cube as a foul-mouthed cop with the young Ice Cube as a foul-mouthed cop hater typifies the film’s playful, grabbing idea of itself. There are some obligatory ‘80s and early ‘90s references, and cameos from some of the old “21 Jump Street” cast members, but ageing Generation X nostalgists - not that I have anybody particular in mind– may be disappointed, which is a good thing.

Jenko and Schmidt suffer their own micro-generational displacement, which is much funnier than big shoulder pads, shaggy mullets or acid-washed denim. Sent back to high school, where they masquerade as students, these 20 somethings are shocked to discover how much has changed since 2005. Everybody texts, and the old social hierarchies seem to have broken down. Kids these days are so tolerant and sensitive and environmentally conscious, Jenko notes, with some dismay. “I blame “Glee”,” he says.

There is, obviously, a genetic connection between that show and this movie. On TV “21 Jump Street” was an hour-long youth-targeted Fox prime-time offering that mixed whimsy, emotion and public-service-announcement sobriety as it confronted social ills like bullying, bigotry and drug abuse. The movie takes aggressive satirical aim at exactly this kind of piety without risking true offensiveness. Among the bad guys, for instance, is a clique of diverse, articulate, college-bound, ecology-minded teenagers, led by Eric (Dave Franco), whose very existence destroys the categories Schmidt and Jenko rely on and who are also dealing dangerous drugs.

Eventually action-movie police work overwhelms high-school high jinks, which is too bad, since Mr. Lord and Mr. Miller operator (who previously directed the chaotic animated film “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”) show no specific distinction in setting up chases and shootouts. The real energy in the film comes from Mr. Hill and Mr. Tatum, who at the same time fulfill and reverse their buddy-movie stereotypes.

Thanks to the crazy upside-down world of 2012, and also a clerical mix-up, Schmidt is cast as the big shot – with an only slightly inappropriate romantic possibility played by Brie Larson – while the beefy, bull-necked Jenko is exiled to the world of wonks and dweebs. This may not be a terribly freshidea, but the two lead actors are agile and nimble and unembarrassable enough to render the identity confusion amusing and even, sometimes, touching. 

“21 Jump Street” makes a virtue of its own lack of novelty, reveling in its dumb gags and retrograde attitudes – in 2012 women can actually be funny! - With such unaffected exuberance that you may find yourself not only tickled, but also charmed.

“21 Jump Street” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parents or adult guardian). Far too much raw language for network prime time, however sex, gore and nudity are well within broadcast bounds.


Written by Sukanya Roy
Artist, Critic, Writer, Photographer, Movie buff, Graphic Designer, Literature and Geography enthusiast, Soccer fan, and Imaginative.


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