This is the optimism corner. A couple of months back the whole crew took a look at the 21 Jump Street trailer during our podcast and 75% decided that it didn't look to be worth the effort. I maintained what hope I could because I laughed through the trailer at how deftly it was poking fun at '80s cliches and our overreliance on them for kitsch as of late. Now I feel they're the worst part of the movie, an all-too-obvious wink at everyone in the audience in a way that feels insulting.
But then there's that optimism. At the core of this remake is a couple of sweet, innocent (to a point), people trying to play a sarcastic situation totally straight. This film, soaked in irony as it is, manages to maintain a completely honest core of two guys actually trying to get by as good cops. I was surprised at how genuine the comedy arrived, even as the gym teacher's head was turning into a giant talking ice cream cone before eyebrows traveled in a way those bits of hair should never crawl.
Now that we've got the "intelligent" bit out of the way, this is how damn funny the film is. There are things a Drivers Ed car does during a brilliant chase scene which felt all to obvious and I had no idea were desperately needed until two friends started feuding. The subtle touches did not go unmissed, like the way the cops polar to Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill just happen to find themselves undercover at the rival school and begin the same grudges from high school. Then t here are the outright amazing moments, like watching Tatum go to town during a fight scene with a bunch of "high school students" with the enthusiasm and glee of a kid discovering a water slide for the first time.
Even some of the more rote high school film moments are filled with a mix of humor and pain (like Dazed and Confused or some of the lighter moments of the early 7-Up series). Michael Bacall's screenplay deftly dodges a lot of the discomfort we might feel, for example, at an adult undercover cop falling in love with a high schooler by making it as painful for people forcing to relive their high school experience as it is for us to watch it. The highlight on the artifice of a bunch of thirty year olds going back to track works in its favor here since we're told not to buy into the illusion to begin with.
Yeah, it's creepy for a bunch of adults to reenact fantasies of what their high school selves might have done if they were back there. That's why we fill high school movies with adults, and why 21JS realizes how much of a silly and dangerous dream this is to begin with. This is the rare example of nostalgia warping into something a lot more potent and funny, drug trips be damned.
Now for a confession, Channing Tatum might be my favorite new comedic actor. The guy who limped his way through G.I. Joe and Step Up as a black hole of charisma is given the chance to be earnest and he manages to blitz his way through the role like an adorable juggernaut. I love how straightforward he is all the time, wanting to make himself better like his buddy, and finding time to display some courageous physical comedy in the band room. His charisma with Jonah Hill is played for subtle familiarity with each other peculiarities, another different take for Hill after his awkwardness in Superbad and hostility in Cyrus.
It's not all shining stars and sunshine in the land where Johnny Depp used to roam. As much as I liked Ice Cube, and his amazing sneer he gave every time he sipped tea, his role became so meta the film threatened to collapse into itself. The worst moments belonged to Rob Riggle, whose elusive charms as the manic sadist have managed to bypass me in several films and an all too familiar performance here.
It's funny how people who managed to miss the self-parody of the trailer are going to miss out on all the sweet humor here. 21JS is not perfect by any stretch, but is the first '80s reboot to really better on its predecessor, especially with a sweet sax solo provided purely through suggestion.