SXSW 2012: Intense Comedy Makes '21 Jump Street' a Riotous Update
by Jeremy Kirk
March 13, 2012
You know Channing Tatum is damn funny, right? There hasn't been much opportunity for him to flex his comedic muscles with things like G.I. Joe and The Vow getting in the way, but all that changes in 21 Jump Street. Tatum is funny. His co-lead Jonah Hill is funny, but we knew that. In fact, listing the aspects of 21 Jump Street that will make you laugh is a fruitless act. Everything about this film is funny and not only funny. It's delirious how viciously funny 21 Jump Street is, a modern update of the '80s TV show about undercover cops going back to high school to bust drug rings. You could call the comedy in this intense. It's a descriptor that fits.
The first, good decision they made with 21 Jump Street was not worrying about mass audience accessibility. It's R-rated, and it needs to be. The story of two, slacker bike cops, Schmidt and Jenko played by Hill and Tatum, respectively, who find themselves in the middle of an undercover drug operation could have easily gone the safe route, delivering suitable comedy in the middle of its very serious premise without much interest in accuracy.
Instead, 21 Jump Street, directed by Chris Miller and Phil Lord, with a script by Hill and Michael Bacall, forces the comedy in at every available interval. Hardly a frame of film goes by without some kind of gag showing itself, not always the easiest to spot but worth the added effort of watching the background here and there. It's the kind of comedy that has you gasping for air yet continues to lambaste you. Parts of this film are almost painful. A drug experience is funny enough with actors like Hill and Tatum acting and reacting to the side effects, but the film doesn't let up, keeps the scene going until it's not funny any more and keeps going until it's funny once again. The added element of graphics for the different stages the drug takes you through is just one, more surprise 21 Jump Street utilizes to make you laugh.
This kind of onslaught of comedy could get tedious. It could even be obnoxious if not in the right hands, but the writing and directing teams behind it are rock solid in what they're doing. Supporting cast from Rob Riggle as the high school gym teacher, Dave Franco as the "cool kid" for 2012, Brie Larson as a high schooler Schmidt becomes smitten with, Nick Offerman as their deputy chief all have a hand in making the film that much funnier. Ice Cube as the captain in charge of the undercover operation has never been more hysterical than when he's berating Schmidt and Jenko. It's a cliched character, one he even points out as being cliched, but the wink and nudge that goes along with the role distracts you from feeling that it's a banal trope.
That's what 21 Jump Street does best, pushes through any cliche or trope that comes with this buddy cop territory. It not only pushes through it, it holds a mirror up to the commonality of it all, shows us the box marked "DOVES" as doves fly out behind our heroes, plays against the exploding vehicles in a ridiculously elaborate car chase, and even finds time for a decent message about these characters and how they fit in with the high school hierarchy. 21 Jump Street is a film that pulls raucous laughter from its audience. The action pieces and character beats are there, important in everything they add to the film, but it's the humor that drives this car. Thankfully it doesn't explode when it hits a gas truck.
Jeremy's SXSW Rating: 8 out of 10