by Ryan Hill
One of the latest crazes to hit filmmaking is the hiring of directors with animation backgrounds to helm live-action movies. Brad Bird, director of the classic “The Incredibles,” recently made his live action debut with “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” one of the best films of 2011. Andrew Stanton, who helmed another Pixar great, “WALL-E,” directed the underwhelming “John Carter,” which opened last week. Now, Phil Taylor and Chris Miller, co-directors of “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” make their live-action debut with “21 Jump Street.”
Jonah Hill, fresh off an Oscar nomination for “Moneyball,” stars with “The Vow’s” Channing Tatum as two immature, young(ish)-looking cops who go undercover at a high school to bust up a drug ring before it can spread beyond the school.
Hill, an Eminem-wannabe when he was in high school, and Tatum, the dumb jock through-and-through, find their roles reversed in today’s high school environment, in which emo seems to have won out over being “cool.” It’s a softer, gentler high school that’s perfect for Hill’s geek, but not so much for Tatum, who ends up shunned by the popular crowd and embraced by the nerds.
Adapted from the ‘80s television show that gave Johnny Depp his big break, “21 Jump Street” is so self-assured it lets the audience in on the joke very early on. Everyone involved with the film knows exactly how ridiculous it is to have people clearly in their twenties go undercover as high school students, let alone have a movie based on an old TV show. That awareness lets everybody run wild with the comedy, and “21 Jump Street” does just that.
This is one of the funniest movies to come along in the past few years, almost ranking up there with “The Hangover” and Hill’s other comedy classic, “Superbad.” It’s seriously that funny. Yes, it’s silly, juvenile humor, but watching Hill and Tatum run wild through school high while under the influence is one of the giddiest, funniest scenes around and sets the tone for the rest of the movie, which gets funnier and more ridiculous as it continues, mostly thanks to Tatum.
Tatum, who in the past has annoyed most male moviegoers with his appearances in so-called “chick flicks” such as “The Vow,” “Step Up” and “Dear John,” finally proves himself a likeable, entertaining lead who can do more than flex his abs. He’s the heart and soul of the film as he painfully discovers today’s kids have no need for a brute, and he wrings every last ounce of humor from that scenario. The result is his best performance yet.
Credit for Tatum and the rest of the film’s humor is mostly owed to the co-directors, Taylor and Miller. They’ve proven whether animated or live-action, comedy is comedy and their comedic timing is impeccable in any format. The movie itself plays like a live-action cartoon at times, but the hyper reality in “21 Jump Street” only adds to the manic comedy, making it a modern-day comedy classic.