REVIEW: ’21 Jump Street’ (2012)

Grade: B-

When reviewing a mainstream comedy, it is not often that shot composition even enters the discussion. However, the film editors have always been the unsung heroes of comedy. Comedy is all about timing and many of cinema’s greatest jokes would not land if it weren’t for the perfectly timed cut to a reaction shot or a clever change in perspective. In the new comedy 21 Jump Street, editor Joel Negron deserves a lot of credit for the film being as funny as it is. Negron knows just how long to pause on Jonah Hill’s deadpan face before cutting to the more animated Channing Tatum. Numerous comedy montages show the duo performing something ridiculous with a perfectly timed cut to a new establishing shot before the previous bit gets stale. Actors like to improvise, directors often let them, but editors really control the comedy.

Negron was one of several contributing factors that turned this mediocre script by Project X scribe Michael Bacall into a watchable and sometimes brilliant comedy. Big credit for the hilarity in 21 Jump Street also has to go to the directing team of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who previously collaborated on the animated film Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Lord and Miller add an emphasis on very relevant themes like bullying and friendship (or as I am sure they would call it “bromance”) to inject the film with a surprising amount of heart. 21 Jump Street is a cliché, yet warm and funny film with a decent 90 minutes that leads up to a great payoff.

Don’t be concerned about the fact that the plot of the film is one we have seen before in films like the unintentionally hilarious 1987 movie Under Cover; the script quells that concern within the first few minutes when Nick Offerman explains, with a not so subtle wink to the audience, how the police academy has run out of ideas and pretty much just recycles ideas from the 80s. Jonah Hill plays the smart, but unconfident Schmidt – a former high school loner and Channing Tatum plays the athletic, but unintelligent Jenko – a former high school bully. The two develop a friendship during training at the police academy and eventually are given an undercover assignment at a local high school to stop the distribution of a new drug.

Within a day they quickly learn that things have changed in the seven years since the pair graduated high school. Bullying is no longer the way to popularity, having been replaced by environmental activism and good study habits. Thus Schmidt immediately gets in with the popular, drug dealers while Jenko forms an unlikely bond with the AP Chemistry crowd. Both use their new relationships to infiltrate the dealers while the new power shift affects their friendship. The strain on their relationship is predictable, but the payoff that comes in the last 10 minutes is not and deserves to be discovered on one’s own.

The film has some smart commentary on power relationships at the high school level with former victim Schmidt getting some unintended revenge on his former bully Jenko. In a more honest glimpse of high school in 2012, 21 Jump Street presents a world where students bully one another with Facebook posts instead of fists. The movie also never over-dramatizes the world of secondary education, admitting that drugs do exist in high school, but never elevating any of the students to the same level as “real drug dealers.” Students are not touting weapons as they distribute the new hallucinogenic drug and they do it completely naïve to the consequences. In other words, high school students act like high school students in this movie, which not only makes the film more authentic, but also makes for some brilliant contrast in the presence of the fish-out-of-water undercover cops.

Tatum and Hill make an excellent on screen duo as the dueling protagonists. The emotional honesty that Hill had on display in his previous effort Moneyball is also present here, although he does allow himself to go a little bit more over the top. Tatum once again proves why he belongs in action comedies rather than romantic dramas. The supporting cast had a few strong performances and a few absolute misfires, most notably Ice Cube and Rob Riggle who were both obnoxiously inauthentic. As the profanity spewing Captain Dickson, Ice Cube chews mouthfuls of scenery and spits out scene after terrible scene that always feel too long. As the high school gym teacher, Rob Riggle tries too hard to be silly instead of honest and is given a much too large speaking part.

Making up for the few bad supporting performances is the breakout turn from newcomer Dax Flame. Flame was previously seen only briefly as the cameraman in this year’s Project X, in which he was given no lines of dialogue. In 21 Jump Street he plays a smart, unassuming science geek who delivers every line with refreshing authenticity. Unlike Mr. Riggle and Mr. Cube, Flame understands that it is not an actor’s job to be funny, but to be honest and let the writer and, as stated above, the editor, do the comedy work. It is a concept many more actors need to embrace.

Bottom Line: 21 Jump Street is a cliché, yet warm and funny film with a decent 90 minutes that leads up to a great payoff.

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