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“21 Jump Street”: How Did It Turn Out So Good?

March 19, 2012

I have no fond memories of the Fox series 21 Jump Street; by the time it debuted in 1987, I was almost out of college and had no interest in a drama about cops going undercover as high-school students. But the new feature-film reboot still made me nostalgic for the ’80s, since it’s the kind of infectious buddy action-comedy that Hollywood used to produce in those days (48 HRS., Midnight Run) but rarely does anymore.

Credit goes to cowriter-costar Jonah Hill, who took the germ of the series and turned it into a hard-R comedy (and a much funnier one than Project X, which was also cowritten by Michael Bacall), and directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who bring the same visual inventiveness as they did to the animated romp Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. And while I’ve never been a fan of Channing Tatum (I swore I’d never see The Vow), he’s perfectly cast here as a lunkhead ex-jock who’s deeply insecure beneath his chiseled good looks.

The ingenious supporting cast includes “F— the Police” rapper Ice Cube as the self-awarely stereotypical “angry black sergeant” (21 Jump Street 2.0 is nothing if not meta); Parks & Recreation‘s Nick Offerman as another police supervisor who delivers a wicked in-joke about how cancelled programs (aka “old shit”) are recycled and sold as new with a perfect deadpan; and Bridesmaids‘ Ellie Kemper as a science teacher who’s feeling all sorts of seemingly inappropriate chemistry with Tatum.

Hill, of course, is one of the many acolytes of Judd Apatow (apolytes?), having costarred in Knocked Up and Superbad, among other Apatovian productions, and he’s learned well how to mix surprising dashes of character development with shockingly gross yet gut-bustingly funny gags. Another pair of Apolytes, Superbad cowriter Evan Goldberg and Undeclared/Knocked Up grad Jay Baruchel, have less success trying to bring that formula to the sports-comedy genre with Goon, which may explain why the hockey flick is making its debut on Video On Demand instead of theaters.

The biggest problem with Goon is its title character, Doug Glatt, flavorlessly played by Seann William Scott. He’s supposed to be a sweet-natured dolt who’s only good at one thing—beating people up—which lands him a job as an enforcer for a semi-pro ice squad. In the hands of a more skillful actor, Glatt could’ve been like Being There‘s Chauncey Gardner on skates; instead, he just seems like a hockey puck.

The movie springs to life whenever Baruchel turns up as Glatt’s Masshole pal, and the ensemble benefits from the presence of Liev Schreiber (the voice of HBO Sports!) as an aging brute, Scott’s American Pie costar Eugene Levy as Glatt’s disapproving dad and Sons of Anarchy‘s Kim Coates as his fire-breathing coach. But Scott is a cipher at the movie’s center; I can’t believe I’m writing this, but Goon might’ve been really good if his role had been played by… Channing Tatum.

How would you rate 21 Jump Street on a scale from 1 to 10? Don’t keep your comments undercover!

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