Friday, March 23, 2012

21 Jump Street Offers Fresh Take On Old Material

It’s hard to watch the theatrical reimagining of 21 Jump Street and not think of the Ben Stiller/Owen Wilson led Starkly and Hutch. Both films take properties long past their sell by date and attempt to cash in on any remaining name recognition by taking what was once a fairly dramatic cop show and reimagining it as a tongue-in-cheek, mismatched buddy comedy. For each film, plot is beside the point. Instead, they rely upon the crackerjack chemistry of their leads, goofy fringe characters, and weird humor (oddly, both feature a drug-induced tripping balls sequence).
Despite the similarities, 21 Jump Street has been greeted with a far warmer reception. It just took a major haul in its first weekend ($36.3 million) and, with excellent scores from critics and audiences alike, it should have decent legs (a sequel is already in the works). Starsky and Hutch wasn’t a shabby performer in 2004 ($88 million domestic, $170 million worldwide), and it’s actually a solid comedy, but it didn’t inspire sequel/franchise talk and is generally viewed as a minor thing.
The central reason, I believe, is in the approach. There’s a lot of subversive talent on the log sheet for Starsky and Hutch – director Todd Phillips and stars Stiller, Wilson, Vince Vaughn, and Will Ferrell – and yet it’s mostly conventional and downright reverential to the source material (same era, same characters, same car, hell, even the same stylistic cues). Meanwhile, 21 Jump Street takes the premise (cops go undercover in high school) of its predecessor and little else, infusing it with the self-aware irreverence of a Wright/Pegg genre send-up (Sean of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) and the self-reflection and character beats of an Apatow joint (Superbad, Knocked Up).
This film really isn’t parodying the original Jump Street so much as it’s riffing on genre conventions and remakes. The major comic set piece is a car chase sequence that parodies the tendency for things to blow up during movie car chases, and when Nick Offerman’s deputy character tells Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill’s rookie cops that they are being reassigned to Jump Street, he calls it an undercover program that has been revived due to “lack of imagination.”
Adding to the comedy is the fact that, as silly the whole thing gets, the emotional stuff plays. The central relationship is believable and sincerely underlined, and the film has some well-done, under-the-surface thematics concerning friendship and the generational divide. Even the amusingly dark cameo appearance that sees former Jump Street stars Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuise get murdered is used to further along the central bromance (awesome note: Depp indicated he’d only do a cameo if his character was given this type of closure. RIP Tommy Hanson).
I think critics and audiences are also doing cartwheels over this thing due to the central pairing. Although Stiller and Wilson have a strong chemistry in Starsky and Hutch, that film has them milking a familiar dynamic, one they’ve done far more successfully and inventively in other films. This film offers audiences something fresh, especially in the way it provides a whole new showcase for Tatum, who all but walks away with the movie.
There’s something undeniably exciting about watching an actor kill a role the way Tatum does here, especially when it totally deviates from expectation. Tatum has a reputation as a bad actor, and although it’s not entirely earned (he’s pretty decent in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints and Stop-Loss), movies like GI Joe: Rise of Cobra and Dear John don’t help his case. He’s always displayed a decent screen presence and a certain vulnerability, and both are put to great use here. I’ve been pulling for the guy for a long while, especially because he seems so determined to work with good directors like Michael Mann and Stephen Soderbergh. With the one two punch of The Vow and 21 Jump Street, he’s well positioned right now, and with two interesting-looking Soderbergh movies on the way, I’m digging the direction he’s headed in.
Hill is also quite good in his first post-weight loss role. After getting an Oscar nomination for his subtle Moneyball performance, he makes strides in refining his comic persona here to the point that he capably carries a sweet romantic subplot with costar Brie Larson. I’m still not sure if he can carry a movie on his own (The Sitter bombed last year), but the fact that he can work so well off of so many varying personalities (Michael Cera, Seth Rogen, Russell Brand, Brad Pitt, and Tatum) is impressive.
The rest of the cast acquits themselves nicely, with Larson and Dave Franco (brother of James) providing a good amount of pathos in roles that would normally be pure cookie cutter (Franco’s wounded line reading of “But you bought me taco bell” is still cracking me up). Taking a different approach are Ellie Kemper, Ice Cube and Rob Riggle, all of whom play their characters as broadly as possible. While I wasn’t crazy about Kemper or Cube (more so the nature of the characters really), Riggle killed me (it helps that he’s the focal point of two of the movies funniest sight gags).