I was never a fan of TV’s “21 Jump Street” because I was way older than the target audience—so I came to the 2012 action-comedy with a fresh pair of eyes and no expectations. Well, other than having seen that a few critics from other sites had given the film an 8 out of 10.
I watched Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum go through their paces with my teenage son, because if anyone would appreciate an action crime-comedy about a couple of obviously deficient cops going undercover at a high school to ferret out and bust the big drug supplier, it’s a teenager.
Curiously, neither one of us laughed enough to where we’d give the film high marks, and the chain-of-events action seemed a little too obvious to be suspenseful. So are the two of us wrong? Who knows. All a reviewer can do is write his or her honest reaction, and as a fellow reviewer once remarked, if all movie reviewers agreed, only one of us would have a job.
Much of the humor is of the wink-wink sort, in which screenwriters Michael Bacall (no relation) and Jonah Hill have some fun by acknowledging all the tropes in a show like this with tongue-in-cheek self-awareness. In films like these the actors are always older-looking than high school students, and they get that right out into the open. Self-aware? Yes. Funny? Well, not the way that it was handled. More successful was their sly take on the car-chase explosions that are standard issue with a film like this. You see the crash, you see gas trickling from the tank, and, like the “boys,” you brace yourself for an explosion . . . that doesn’t come. “Huh? I thought for sure that was going to explode,” one of them quips. And it’s that sort of postmodern self-reflexivity that drives much of the humor. The rest of it is driven by clichés that aren't so self-aware.
As I watched, I was reminded of my stint in grad school when a particularly harsh professor told my officemate that she couldn’t write, and said to me, “You know, you write much better than you speak. You’re very inarticulate, you know.” We joked that they assigned us an office to share because between us we made one graduate student. That’s the premise here as well. Schmidt (Hill) is the classic weak nerd with no chutzpah and not a single aggressive bone in his body . . . yet he wants to be a cop. Jenko (Tatum) is the athletic bully sort who’s always gotten by on his good looks, though in cop school he’s flunking the written parts while Schmidt is failing the athletic requirements. So they help each other, bond, become partners, and expect to be doing all kinds of cool busts.
Instead of the glamour, they find themselves on bicycle duty, then go just a tad overboard when they see a motorcycle gang using drugs in a public park and try to bust them. In one of the funnier scenes, the guys are so excited that they’ve made a bust that they fire their weapons straight up in the air, as if they were extras in an old Western, while horrified families in the park look on. Another funny bit occurs when the guys have their undercover backs against the wall and have no choice but to take the drugs they’re buying right in front of the dealer, to show him they’re not cops. Psychedelic title cards show the stages that a user goes through while on this designer drug, and they provide for more than a few laughs.
After they go undercover at a high school and the nerd infiltrates the popular kids while the jock falls in with the nerds, everything seems topsy-turvy—more wink-wink humor, especially as a teacher flirts with Jenko and Schmidt kind of falls for one of the students.
But for an action comedy, “21 Jump Street” had less action or comedy than I expected. It felt as if I spent too much time waiting for something to happen—either for a joke to fire, or a pistol. That self-awareness of waiting for the good stuff is what led both my son and I to give “21 Jump Street” a lower rating than others. Compared to an action-comedy like “Date Night,” this one fell short in our books.
“21 Jump Street” streets with an AVC/MPEG-4 encode, presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio. It’s a great-looking picture, with pleasingly saturated colors, a nice depth of field, and strong black levels that pull detail even from dark scenes—though the film seems to flatten out a bit in some of those interior shots. That’s really my only complaint.
The featured audio is a lively DTS-HD MA 5.1, with additional Dolby Digital 5.1 options in French, Spanish, and Thai, and subtitles in English, English SDH, French, Spanish, Chinese (Mandarin simplified), Chinese (Mandarin traditional), Indonesian/Bahasa, Korean, and Thai. Sound travels naturally across the field, with the rear speakers always active. Be warned, though, that this is one of those films that forces you to turn the volume up to hear the dialogue, but then the explosions and other action seem too loud. Oh well.
At times, the commentary track featuring Hill, Tatum, and directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller was funnier than the film, and the foursome seems to have a good time, putting entertainment ahead of information. That is, there’s not much to be learned here, but it’s fun to listen to—if you like commentaries. Aside from the commentary track, the most substantial bonus feature is a collection of some 20 deleted/extended scenes that run a total of just under 30 minutes. Some of them are quite funny, which, of course, made me wish they had been included, or at least offered in a second “extended cut” version of the film. After that, everything clocks in at under 10 minutes. The longest bonus feature is “The Rob Riggle Show” (9 min.), which is basically a self-congratulatory piece featuring cast and crew and incorporating the usual clips and behind-the-scenes shots. Then there’s “Back to School” (8 min.), which feels like a TV teaser in which cast and crew again talk about high school these days and what they were trying to do to create the humor. Then there’s a short feature on Hill and Tatum titled “Brothers in Arms” (6 min.) that’s pretty fluffy, a five-minute gag reel, a five-minute cast-and-crew reaction to Depp’s cameo, a four-minute breakdown of the freeway chase and all its attendant crashes, and a two-minute “Cube-O-Rama” montage of the chief’s best lines. Also included are instructions to download a UV Digital copy.
Ice Cube has fun with his own stereotyped character—a police captain who uses colorful language—and fans of the TV series will delight in Johnny Depp’s uncredited role as an undercover federal agent. It’s especially fun watching the two stars together. But I just couldn’t shake the uncomfortable feeling of waiting for the film to be funnier or more action-packed.