This year I’m trying to participate in a project that was created by comedian Doug Benson, that gets called the Doug Loves Movie Challenge. The point of it is to watch a new movie every day of the year. So for 2016 I’m trying to watch 366 movies I’ve never seen before. So far that’s gotten me a whole lot of documentaries and silent movies, since they tend to clock in under an hour and half, which makes it easier to accomplish. But it’s also been an excuse to just watch any random movie my wife and I come across on Netflix, or any of the other streaming services we subscribe to. So the other day we decided to finally give 21 Jump Street, a movie that I think everyone assumed was going to be terrible, but appeared to actually be good, a shot. Now, when this movie came out, I kept hearing people saying that it was shockingly hilarious, despite pretty much everything about it. I’ve never seen any of the television series from the 80s, but I’m familiar with it and it’s ridiculous premise. And man do films based on television shows from decades earlier typically suck. Things like Starsky and Hutch or the Dukes of Hazard are complete train wrecks, and usually serve as these weird messes that pry on a strange combination of nostalgia and cynical mockery of the subject matter. These movies usually seem to be made for no one, because they rip on the series which would alienate the people who loved it, but have too many references to the show to make it enjoyable for someone going in blind. So that, combined with the fact that at the time I had a strong aversion to Channing Tatum and a general apathy towards Jonah Hill, led me to just ignore that movie, despite people’s claims that it was hilarious and brilliant. And then they made a sequel, which seemed like a terrible decision, and once again I heard it was great, but still stuck to my pretentious opinions, and avoided it. But desperate times call for desperate measures, so I finally checked out 21 Jump Street, and then almost immediately had to check out 22 Jump Street, and even though I’m years late to the party, I’m here to tell you that they’re wonderful.
Now, some of the things I kept hearing about 21 Jump Street when it came out that it didn’t take itself seriously, and that it lovingly mocked the television series it was loosely based on, which didn’t make it sound appealing to me at all. That’s the same issues that I mentioned earlier. But what I’ve learned from watching these two movies is that apparently there is a way to make that type of movie right, I had just never seen one before. Because these movies do fall into the exact same trappings of the bad comedic adaptations of old shows, but does it brilliantly, because they end up being satires of not only the show, but the entire buddy-cop action genre itself. I’ll say here that I’ve never actually seen the 21 Jump Street show, so I have absolutely no attachment to it, so who knows, maybe if I was a die hard fan of the series, I would be pissed at this adaptation. But as it stands, knowing nothing about the series other than the base premise, I had a blast with these movies. But the thing I learned from these movies that the key to making an adaptation of a TV series is to make a movie that’s based on the premise, and not the show specifically. The characters that Tatum and Hill play, Schmidt and Jenko, aren’t based on characters from the series, and neither are any of the other characters (except a ridiculous cameo in the first movie from the two stars of the TV series, Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuise). They just took the premise, of having two undercover police officers infiltrating a high school, and made their own story with it. And that really seemed to be the smartest move they made, because they didn’t have to be beholden to make an accurate adaptation, and they didn’t have to worry about people being mad that they ruined characters they loved, because they were making their own stories.
Or should I say story? Because one of the things that I loved most about this series is the fact that the two movies are virtually identical in their plot, which is hilarious. The first movie tells the story of how Schmidt and Jenko knew each other in high school, then became best friends in police academy, only to end up with terrible positions being bike-cops in a park. They manage to foil a drug deal though, and get moved over to the Jump Street division, headed up by the hilarious “angry black police captain” stereotype that is Captain Dickson (played by the truly great Ice Cube) who belittles the pair, and makes them go pose as high school students that are brothers. The two begin investigating, after messing up and accidentally switching the identities given to them, which makes Tatum the brilliant science geek and Hill the jock track-star. They fumble through a ridiculous investigation that attempts to find the dealers and manufacturers of a new drug that’s hitting this local high school. And along the way Schmidt becomes one of the most popular kids in school, while Jenko finds that no one likes his personality, and he finds solace with the science geeks. Schmidt ends up getting too close to the popular kids, who are the ones dealing the drugs, and ends up jeopardizing the investigation while Jenko becomes petty and jealous. Schmidt almost blows off the investigation so he can be Peter Pan in a play the school is putting on, which causes a fight between him an Jenko that ends with the two being expelled, which destroys the whole plan, and gets them kicked out of the Jump Street program. But they ignore that, go rogue, and storm the prom, getting into a crazy fire-fight with the popular kids, some drug dealers, and the kingpin of the whole operation, the creepy gym teacher. And he movie ends with them succeeding in destroying the drug trade in the school, and becoming heroes!
21 Jump Street was a really fun movie that was completely carried by the surprising chemistry between Hill and Tatum. They were shockingly funny together, and really created goofy and memorable characters. The movie took every chance it could to mention how ridiculous the plot was, even making direct references to what a stupid idea it even is to make a movie out of a show from the 80s that no one cares about. Usually that would come off as shitty and self-deprecating, but somehow the wonderful team of Lord and Miller made it extremely enjoyable and fun. They were walking a very thin line through the movie, and it was constantly in danger of tipping over to be terrible, but it managed to stay great throughout, which was honestly the most impressive thing about the whole movie. It played with the tropes of the show, and honestly the tropes of buddy-cop action movies in general. Lord and Miller made a sarcastic love-letter to goofy 80s actions flicks like Lethal Weapon, and did it in a way that didn’t come off as cynical or mean-spirited, which is frankly astounding.
And then there was 22 Jump Street. When we finished watching the first movie, I was so happy that I had been wrong, and found a really enjoyable and funny movie, and that immediately made me wary that the sequel would be garbage. Sequels to comedies are typically a horrible idea, and I was really worried about this one, because it seemed like the gag could get old incredibly quickly and just completely ruin the movie. I was worried that they would either change too much, or too little, and just make a very bland rehash of the first movie. And I was kind of right, but also wrong in the most wonderful way. Because I was right that his movie would be a complete rehash of the first movie, but I was wrong that it would be bland, or that that would be a bad thing. I’ve never seen a movie like 22 Jump Street work as well as it does. It’s no secret that 80s action flicks often had sequels that were essentially the exact same movie, just a little bigger and crazier. Die Hard was followed with a movie that was just Die Hard again, but in an airport, which was bigger than the office building the first one was in. So what’s the logical bigger location that a 21 Jump Street sequel could go to? College of course! That seemed inevitable. But the way that this movie was structured exactly the same as the first one was such a weird, and wonderful, call.
The plot of the movie follows the first almost exactly, just with some slight changes. Things open up with Schmidt and Jenko ruining a drug-bust and being sent back to the Jump Street program, again, which is now really fancy and has a lot of money. And this time Dickson is sending them to college to bust a new drug that the kids are using. So they move into their dorm and begin investigating, in pretty much the exact same way that they did the first time around. And from there, the movie follows the same plot beats, just with some things reversed. Jenko is the popular one this time, falling in with the jocks, while Schmidt becomes the weird outcast who is focused on getting the investigation done. And this time it’s Jenko ho tries to mess with the investigation when it turns out his pall is involved, and then almost ruins things when he focuses on a big football game instead of a bust. Then things go wrong, they get kicked off the force again, and have to team up to head to spring break and bust the dealers at their source. And once again, things end with them succeeding and being lauded as heroes, before we get to maybe the best part of the whole movie, the ridiculous credit sequence that pokes fun at the popularity of the series by suggesting dozens of new sequels where the pair have to go to a whole variety of different schools, each with their new gimmick, and occasionally different things happening like recasting the roles or adding new characters to revitalize the series. It was a wonderful joke, mocking the ridiculous propensity for Hollywood to just keep churning out the same crap that worked once, over and over, ad nasueam.
22 Jump Street was not as good as 21 Jump Street, but it certainly leaned heavier on some of the ridiculous narrative gags. It was a movie written for people who love stories. It so unashamedly apes the first movie, having characters blatantly mention the fact that it’s exactly like the thing they did a couple years ago, and is full of silly screen-writing jokes. Characters flat out say that they’re having a meet-cute, and a character that we were lead to think was involved in the drug trade literally has a tattoo of a Red Herring on his bicep. It’s just ridiculous. But it worked wonderfully for me. Both of these movies are so silly, and manage to succeed in a way that I would never have thought would work. The reason that I resisted these movies for so long was the idea that there was no feasible way that they could be enjoyable. I figured they would be these weird, self-indulgent messes that were too focused on mocking the fact that they’re based on a show from the 80s, and that they would just be too dumb. And honestly, I was exactly right, but they were still incredibly enjoyable. These movies somehow found some sort of state of nirvana by fully embracing the stupidity of the concept, and just running full steam into the realm of farce.
21 Jump Street was written by Michael Bacall, directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, and was released by Columbia Pictures, 2012
22 Jump Street was written by Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel, and Rodney Rothman, directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, and was released by Columbia Pictures, 2014