Cole (Not Warren) Bradley’s review:
I liked this movie more when it was called HOT FUZZ. Hell, I liked this movie better when it was called THE OTHER GUYS. Actually, can I just talk about THE OTHER GUYS? That's such a great movie. No? I have to review 21 JUMP STREET? Fine.
Roger Ebert once said that he loved reviewing great movies, and he loved reviewing awful movies, but he hated reviewing mediocre movies. I disagree. I love digging into mediocre films. I love exploring what works and what doesn't. And I completely understand Ebert's feelings. He's a professional critic and his reviews have to flow and make sense and come to a logical conclusion. I don't have to do any of this shit, so I can go on whatever bizarre tangents as I try to digest this film. So yeah. Fair warning: I've been awake for 28 hours and literally just left the theater. And I don't believe in editing. Let's rock and roll.
15 THOUGHTS I HAD WHILE WATCHING 21 JUMP STREET
1. PETER PAN IS A FEMALE ROLE
I know this sounds like a minor complaint, especially to start with, but it's important. A main subplot in this film involves Jonah Hill being cast as the title character in the school's production of Peter Pan opposite his love interest. Peter Pan is a female role. Always has been. And this show is a musical, which means the music would be written for a girl. I know this sounds nit-picky, but it's emblematic of a laziness that pervades the bulk of the film. They could have chosen any play, but they went with the one that didn't work just so they could have a car chase in which Jonah Hill is dressed as Peter Pan because it's so funny you guys. It's that attitude of "fuck it, let's just do something wacky, don't matter if it makes sense" attitude that is the death of comedy (outright absurdist films like Airplane! excepted, of course).
2. ELLIE KEMPER NEEDS A STARRING ROLE IN SOMETHING
I don't care what, but she's really great in a very limited role here. Similar effect that she had in MYSTERY TEAM. She goes in the bin with Collette Wolfe and Judy Greer as actresses who need to blow up.
3. BRIE LARSON IS REALLY PRETTY
I know, shocking revelation, but I felt it should be noted just how damn pretty she is. She actually pulls focus from some scenes just by being beautiful.
4. DAVE FRANCO IS THE KING OF UNNECESSARY FRANCHISES
He was in this. He was in the abhorrent FRIGHT NIGHT remake. And he was in the Scrubs Med School spinoff. And I can't think of anything else he's been in.
5. YOU CAN'T HAVE ICE CUBE IN YOUR MOVIE AND AN ICE CUBE SONG ON THE SOUNDTRACK
Because let's be honest: Ice Cube the musician is so much better than Ice Cube the actor that putting one of his old school songs (in this case Straight Outta Compton) in the movie is making a comparison that the movie will lose. (Note: THREE KINGS is the only Ice Cube movie that is cooler, more intense and downright better than NWA, and could have gotten away with this if they had wanted to.)
6. MOVIES NEED TO GET THEIR SHIT TOGETHER ABOUT HOW THEY USE POP MUSIC
If you're gonna use a pre-existing song in your movie, there has to be a reason why. One of the great things about MTV was it led to directors like David Fincher, who shoots scenes like music videos and utilize the pop songs as a parallel to the film. In my mind, there is no better example of this than Richard Kelly. If he uses a pop song in his movie (which he often does), then it absolutely evokes the themes and emotions of that scene on multiple levels and no other song would work. Most movies don't do this. This movie uses "The Real Slim Shady" to set up a visual gag in its first minute, which is fine. But then we get songs like "Police & Thieves" because they're training to be cops and "Straight Outta Compton" when showing a drug deal. There's no elegance in that.
7. TELLING US YOU'RE USING A CLICHE DOES NOT EXCUSE THE FACT THAT YOU'RE USING A CLICHE
I blame SCREAM for this. Not that SCREAM is guilty (it's not) but because the lesson learned from SCREAM was that you could make a generic film and get away with it if you point out the cliches in a meta way. Nathan Rabin's review of this film gets into this in much more detail than I could, but I'd like to point out one example. Ice Cube (who really needs to stop acting right now) is an angry, loud black police chief who is the most generic police chief, but it's okay because he says in his first scene that he's doing it intentionally to teach the undercover cops to embrace the stereotypical nature of high school cliques or some such bullshit. No. Either write an original character or embrace the cliche. Either is fine. Don't rely on a post-modern shield.
8. SOME PLOT HOLES WILL GO UNNOTICED IF YOU DON'T TRY TO FILL THEM
This is a theory I've had for awhile that this movie confirmed. Narrative storytelling is based on suspension of disbelief, and sometimes this means plot holes. I'm not saying that no plot holes should be fixed, but many plot holes essential to the set up will be ignored by the audience if the film doesn't acknowledge them. I was perfectly willing to accept that Tatum and Hill could pass as high school students until every character starting joking about how old Tatum looks. Every time they tried to explain it away made me more suspicious of if he'd be able to pull it off. If they had said nothing, no problem.
There's a theme in this movie about the changing face of popularity. That the big, muscle bound hunk is no longer the popular kid, finding himself replaced by a more sensitive, liberal pretty boy. Is this an actual thing happening in high schools? Who the fuck cares, this is fiction. The problem is the movie doesn't commit to it. It's right at the place where it's not important enough to be compelling but just important enough to be distracting. Either have a theme or don't. You can't have it both ways.
10. LAY OFF THE CHEKOV'S GUN
For those of you who don't know, Chekov's Gun in the idea that plot elements should be set up in advance, that a gun placed on the mantle in the first act should be fired in the third. It's a solid idea, but this film takes it too far. It feels like every single element in the beginning of the film turns out to have influence in the end (complete with flashbacks to remind us of what we saw 90 minutes ago!) and none of it feels natural. This isn't a title plotted film in the vein of THE USUAL SUSPECTS or MULHOLLAND DR. This is a film that's forcing these elements in order to please a writer who's been dead for 100 years.
Now the more astute of you may have noticed that I gave this movie a positive review and have spent the bulk of this review tearing it apart. Well, I saved the best for last. Specifically...
11. CHANNING TATUM IS A FUCKING COMEDIC GENIUS
I'm about to say something many of you will see is insane. But here goes. The performance that Tatum has most in common with is Gene Wilder in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.
I mean that.
There's an element to all of Wilder's performances, and especially FRANKENSTEIN, of perfection. Every movement, every bit of inflection, every breathe is perfectly in character and planned. And hilarious. And you can't imagine anyone anyone else even coming close.
That's how good Tatum is. I don't know how much of this was improvised, but it all feels improvised, and that's what matters. He is in complete control of this character, and he is fucking hilarious. His half-mumbled asides are funnier than the funniest lines by anyone else in this movie. It's perfection. And he kicks ass. Literally. Tatum knows how to fight (just look at HAYWIRE) and it shows. He has the feel of a perfect action star, and that combined with his comedic skill makes this an absolute smash. I can't remember the last comedic performance I saw that was this great. I've always had more respect for Tatum's ambition than his talent, but that has reversed. This man has a gift, and it is a gift good enough that the movie's worth seeing just for him. And I can't believe I just said that.
12. THIS MOVIE EMBRACES ITS RATING
21 JUMP STREET is a movie about drug dealers in a high school. The odds of them getting less than an R were low. Rather than push for a lower rating to bring in a larger crowd, they embraced the R. They embrace the inherently funny way Tatum says 'fuck.' They embrace the way they can have characters open a door and witness a random sex act. And they embrace the fact that when the climax comes, they can be violent. I was actually surprised by the level of bloodshed in the last act of this film (it's not anywhere near a gorefest but it's more than you'll normally see in a movie like this). It knows what it is and it revels in it.
13. THAT ENDING FIGHT SCENE IS GREAT
For all that the bulk of the movie is a generic comedy (Tatum aside), that ending fight scene is amazing. It's violent, tense, shocking, awesome, funny and contains one of the best twists I've seen in a long time. It's the other main reason this film works, and it along with Tatum are the reasons I am giving this a positive review.
14. FUCK IT, LET'S TALK ABOUT THE OTHER GUYS
Okay, seriously, THE OTHER GUYS is a masterpiece. One day the rest of the world will get this. And the fact of the matter is, these movies do a lot of things similarly. They're both very on the nose deconstructions of buddy cop films. With two main differences.
I've never been the biggest fan of Adam McKay. I find his work makes a lot more sense if you view him as a surrealist. ANCHORMAN, TALLEDEGA NIGHTS and STEPBROTHERS are all largely unrestrained from reality, and while that leads to some hilarious moments (the cougar in the car, the a cappella Guns N Roses), they're ultimately empty films, because there's nothing behind the surrealism. They're not about anything.
THE OTHER GUYS is about the financial crisis of 2008. Very explicitly. It is a passionate and angry film that has something to say and wants to say it. And that's why it works. The "let's subvert buddy cop movies just because" moments work because of McKay's surrealist background, and the surrealism works because the message gives it a through line and stakes.
21 JUMP STREET doesn't have either of those elements, and that's what makes it so difficult. On one hand, those action scenes are great and Tatum is God. On the other hand, the film is empty. It feels like they're subverting the conventions just to subvert them, because they don't want to make a straight action film. The jokes fall flat. The characters have no depth. The story is generic. Because there's no meaning behind it, no style other than metatextuality for metatextuality's sake. So while I am ultimately recommending this film, it's the thinnest recommendation possible because it's so uneven.
15. THE END CREDITS FEEL LIKE THEY WERE LIFTED FROM NATURAL BORN KILLERS
And it's absolutely awesome. And I'm gonna end it here because I just wrote 2,000 words on a movie I was ambivalent on and it's two in the morning and I've been up for 30 hours. Peace.