21 Jump Street ★★★★½

One of the most interesting facts about this remake of 21 Jump Street, the popular 1980's high school comedy procedural drama, is that it's not actually a remake at all. Phil Lord & Christopher Miller have made technically a sequel, rebadging the concept while maintaining the continuity from Patrick Hasburgh & Steven J. Cannell's original series, which is unique in the annals of doing over a popular concept. It also happens to be one of the many strengths of their movie, an unexpectedly terrific action-comedy that breathes fresh new life into several well worn genres and tropes, while also happening to be damn clever in the process. Beyond the vibrant direction and two strong, endearing & comedic performances from Jonah Hill & Channing Tatum, the biggest plaudits must go to Michael Bacall's screenplay because it's without doubt one of the finest big budget comedy treatments of recent years - not just for the fact it's extremely funny but also because it speaks on different levels with quite some intelligence.

You see what 21 Jump Street does is have a lot of fun playing with not just expectations as a viewer, but expectations as a writer. Bacall frequently almost nods & winks to the audience as close to breaking the fourth wall as he can get - be it Nick Offerman's police chief getting the Jump St address wrong, or indeed the drama teacher ending what would be Act 2 with, literally, saying 'and that's the end of Act 2'. It's very subversive in that regard & can be enjoyed on different levels, which Lord & Miller absolutely make the most of. Their movie has been described variously as 'Bad Boys meets John Hughes' and that's a decent approximation of how they fuse the cop-buddy genre with the traditional high school comedy, with plenty more influences thrown in along the way - there's more than a liberal dose of Lethal Weapon in Hill's difficulty shooting a gun, for instance, while Ice Cube (who almost steals the film) plays up the well-worn shouty black police captain trope superbly. Lord & Miller are very aware of the playground they're in but frequently twist it around and, as stated, play with expectations - a recurring gag sees the duo failing to explode vehicles that would blow up in action movies they clearly have seen, for instance, and the fact Hill's Schmidt & Tatum's Greg are in on our joke just makes it funnier. Hill had a large hand in the script & story, indeed, so credit must go to him too for crafting a screenplay that never misses a beat, executing gags with real efficiency - Jump St has more great jokes in its first 20 minutes than many films have in triple that length.

You have to give equal due to the lead players too here, because they've perhaps never been better & are almost perfectly cast. Hill eschews the shouty arrogance he's often fallen back on delivering in his vehicles in order to play Schmidt as likeably hopeless, a bit of nerdy manchild; conversely, Tatum has an absolute blast playing up his action man lead status as the lunkheaded Greg, who very quickly goes from being an asshole to, again, a likeable & dim counterpoint to Schmidt; he's actually got a surprising gift for comic timing and genuinely seems to relish inverting the stock, square jawed hero he was in danger of being typecast as and, throughout, they're a terrific buddy combination who are served by great lines & some really strong character development, always tethered to plot. Lord & Miller enjoy enormously throwing Tatum in with a bunch of science nerds & Hill with the cool kids, flipping the roles you'd expect them to play, and watching as their characters learn & adapt from their surroundings; sure there's inevitably the internal conflict between them as their undercover sting against Dave Franco's oily school dealer Eric goes south, and Schmidt starts to fall for Brie Larson's free spirit Molly, but a lesser screenplay would have spent an age both having their friendship develop only to tear it down & rebuild it, whereas Bacall & Hill get that out the way very quickly so they can fuse the comedy & plot with accentuating the 'bromantic' aspects & playing with tropes. It all builds to a genuinely funny & exciting climax which also will delight fans of the original show as the directors serve to properly tether both these elements up in a delightful way, especially as it ends up factoring into our leads' development. It's just skillfully done across the board.

Honestly, you may be genuinely quite surprised at just how great 21 Jump Street often is. It so easily could have fallen into lazy traps when it came to the action or comedy, but Phil Lord & Christopher Miller absolutely make full use of a truly excellent screenplay to invert, subvert and play with standard tropes, relationships and genre cliches in order to serve up a fresh, clever and often extremely funny and quotable modern comedy - giving also a neat spin on the traditional story you would find in both the buddy cop action film and the high school teen drama, backed up by two career-best performances so far by Jonah Hill & Channing Tatum. Just an absolute delight, and a comedy vehicle that really deserves to be remembered in quite hallowed terms.

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