‘21 Jump Street’: Not jumping, falling

March 13, 2012

Say “Jump,” and I’ll ask, “How high?”

Say “21 Jump Street” and I’ll ask, “Why? Why? Why?”

Why, indeed. The answer seems to be in the credits: because Jonah Hill, who was a preadolescent when the Johnny Depp TV show of the same name was on the air, apparently was a fan of the show. So Hill turns out to be not only the star, but one of the writers and producers of “21 Jump Street,” a so-so movie version of what was truthfully only a so-so TV show.

Hill tries to inoculate himself from accusations about the implicit lack of imagination involved in turning an old TV show into a movie. Early on, as Hill (as Schmidt) and Channing Tatum (as his partner/pal, Jenko) are briefed on the program that will put them undercover at a local high school, their commanding officer, played by the always funny Nick Offerman, gives a brief speech about how this program was tried once before – and that reviving it shows a distinct lack of imagination.

Well-played, you think, since the movie is still young. If they’re this self-aware, perhaps the rest of the movie will be similarly offbeat and funny.

Sorry – only half-right.

While Hill, writer Michael Bacall and directors and directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller want to spoof cop procedurals, they also want to make an actual cop-action film. That blend of comedy and action is a tough one, almost as tough as romantic comedy. The action has to be exciting; the comedy has to be funny. It’s a rare amalgam, one this sloppy film seldom achieves.

Hill and Tatum play two guys who knew each other in high school, where Jenko was the popular (but dumb) jock. Schmidt, on the other hand, was a laughable nerd, one who dressed like early Eminem, though his mouthful of braces clashed with his bleach-blond hair and the gold chain around his neck.

Ten years later, they’re reunited at the police academy, where Jenko helps Schmidt get through the physical rigors of the training, while Schmidt helps Jenko survive the academics. They graduate together with dreams of battling bad guys – only to be assigned to bike patrol in a city park. It’s hard to be bad-ass when you’re wearing shorts and a bike helmet.

But after a misadventure arresting some drug dealers (because Jenko can’t remember the Miranda warning), they’re assigned to 21 Jump Street, a former church where baby-faced officers are detailed to infiltrate area high schools, under the tutelage of Ice Cube. Jenko and Schmidt are assigned to a school where a new synthetic drug has caused one death and threatens to break out to other schools.

Their assignment: Find the man behind the kids who are dealing it. But Jenko is too dim to remember his cover identity – and winds up changing places with Schmidt. Suddenly, Schmidt is one of the cool kids, while Jenko has to hang with the science nerds.

And so on. The point is that Schmidt experiences the kind of high-school popularity he never knew when he was a student and it goes to his head. Jenko, meanwhile, learns what it’s like to be a social outcast, not invited to hang with the cool kids. Will their personal dynamics have an effect on their case? Well, what do you think?

The bottom line is that the writing is never particularly inspired. Tatum has a great deadpan for playing dumb, and Hill has the kind of post-modern comedy affect – part bluster, part sycophant – that has turned him into a rising comic star. He makes the material seem better than it is, but it’s the kind of heavy lifting he can only manage for about half the film. Ice Cube, meanwhile, gets few funny lines and spends most of the film with a menacing glare on his face, but no bite to his bark.

“21 Jump Street” calls to mind “The Other Guys” and several other films that tried to mix comedy and action – and missed the mark. The comedy cameos aside (most of which are meant as surprises), “21 Jump Street” is only mildly amusing, a film that was probably a lot funnier in the writers’ room than it is on the screen.

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