Saturday, March 24, 2012

Comedy spin on '21 Jump Street' surprises

The world wasn't clamouring for a comedy version of "21 Jump Street," the late 1980s drama about cops undercover in high school, but now that it exists, it's a pleasant surprise.

A slimmed down, but not exactly toned Jonah Hill, is teamed up with the muscular Channing Tatum. It is a match up that works unexpectedly well as Tatum reveals comedic abilities that had, until now, not been utilized. In previous films, Tatum has often come across as stiff and dull, so here he is a bit of a revelation. He is funny, charming and has genuine chemistry with Hill.

The film starts with a brief prologue in which we get to see Hill and Tatum in high school. Hill is the teased geek and Tatum the bullying jock. Fast forward several years and the two have become friends at police academy with Tatum helping Hill with the physical stuff and Hill helping Tatum with the mental stuff.

After botching their first arrest by failing to read the Miranda rights, the duo are transferred to 21 Jump Street and sent back to high school to find the source of a new potentially deadly drug. The duo accidentally swap their undercover identities, so the shy Hill is now in drama and on the track team and the dim Tatum is in AP chemistry.

The screenplay by Hill and Michael Bacall is shrewd in its observations of how high school has changed in just a few years. The popular kids are now ecologically and socially aware and a jock like Tatum doesn't automatically float to the top of high school hierarchy. Instead the more geeky Hill becomes top dog.

While the film certainly isn't a realistic reflection of modern high school — jocks are always likely to have a place in the upper crust of the high school social spheres — there seems to be a kernel of truth in the shift of what is seen as cool. Things like comic books, video games and, thanks to "Glee," even chorus have become acceptable in the mainstream. Showing that shift instead of just perpetuating the usual teen movie cliques was a smart move.

The script also has a lot of fun playing around with the conventions of action movies. There are some very big laughs involving audience expectations not being met. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller spoof over-stylized action films by showing a bicycle chase in action-movie mode juxtaposed to what is really happening.

Lord and Miller, whose previous film was the animated feature "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs," have a lively, but not pushy style, particularly when showing the different "stages" the drug takes its users to.

The directors keep things moving at a brisk pace, but also allow for the characters to breathe. The film takes its time to develop a sweet dynamic between Hill and Brie Larson as the head drug dealer's semi-girlfriend. Similarly, the script also allows Tatum to bond with the nerdy outcasts in chemistry.

Hill and Tatum are surrounded by solid supporting players including Rob Riggle, Chris Parnell and, best of all, Ice Cube, as the foul-mouthed captain. Former rapper Ice Cube, who has been doing a lot of kids movies of late, reminds us that he has a very funny way with profane language.

Co-screenwriter Bacall also co-wrote "Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World" with Edgar Wright, who co-wrote and directed the cop comedy "Hot Fuzz." "21 Jump Street" is a cruder and more tightly-paced film, but in terms of overall tone and story arc the film is close to "Hot Fuzz."

Both films are not jam packed with action and take the time to develop their characters before exploding into humorously over-the-top action endings. Hill and Tatum's character get to grow. This isn't exactly deep or even subtle stuff, but it is nice to see an attention to characters alongside the crass, goofball humor.

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