10 Years Later, It’s Still Crazy That ‘21 Jump Street’ Actually Worked
In the spring of 2012, there was every reason to assume that 21 Jump Street was going to be bad. Hollywood had a very uneven track record of turning television shows into major motion pictures, and recent misfires like I Spy and The A-Team didn’t inspire much confidence. Plus, the original 1980s series, which starred Johnny Depp, Holly Robinson and Richard Grieco, was a very cheesy, very Eighties teen drama — and this remake was going to be an action-comedy? Oh, and one other thing: The film would star Channing Tatum, the guy best known for Step Up and Dear John — he wasn’t exactly funny.
With the film coming to Netflix on December 1st, it’s easy now, 10 years later, to forget all the reasons we assumed the worst about 21 Jump Street. Happily, though, those worries were unfounded. The movie turned out to be one of the best comedies of the last decade — not to mention a film that boosted the profile of everyone involved, including the guys who made it, directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. You could argue that mainstream studio comedies have been profoundly affected by the commercial and critical success of 21 Jump Street, mostly for the better. This goofy, R-rated, surprisingly sweet movie had no right being as good as it was.
The film got rolling in large part thanks to Jonah Hill, who in the late aughts was associated with Judd Apatow comedies, landing his breakout role in 2007’s Superbad. But even so, he was thought of at the time as that movie’s randy, loudmouthed teen — he was around 25 — and not necessarily a leading man. When Sony approached him about working on the script for 21 Jump Street and serving as an executive producer, it was seen as something of a leap for him. “(Sony executives said) they were gonna let me make my kind of movie — an R-rated, insane, Bad-Boys-meets-John Hughes-type movie — and I told them the second they don’t, I’m not gonna be involved anymore,” Hill said in 2009, later adding, “We’re not even spoofing the (show). It’s not strictly comedic, either. We’re doing a full-on action movie, blowing shit up.”
But who would direct it? The studio turned to Lord and Miller, who had made their name in animation, first by co-creating (along with Bill Lawrence) MTV’s Clone High and then graduating to big-screen features with a family film, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. And while there might have been pressure on them for their first live-action project, they decided to draw on classic action-comedies, like 48 Hrs. and Beverly Hills Cop, and focus on the characters.
As Lord said at the time, “Our approach to this was, ‘What if we made it good?’ And we thought that it could work if we took it seriously, and made the character story good, and try to make it work emotionally. Then we could take the rest of it completely not seriously, and have a lot of fun with the concept. But still do something that’s an enjoyable experience, where you think the filmmakers (thought) this was kind of a crazy idea too, but they took it seriously enough and did a good job.”
Hill would play Morton, a nerdy guy who’d been picked on as a teeanger, and he’s paired with Greg, a meathead jock who was the cool kid in their high school. It was a typical opposites-attract, buddy-cop pairing, and Hill thought of Tatum when they went looking for the perfect Greg. “I’ve been a huge fan of his forever. … (But) I was terrified of comedy,” admitted Tatum, who had worked almost exclusively in dramas. But 21 Jump Street, along with another film he was making, Magic Mike, was going to change perceptions of his stardom. He wasn’t just going to be the pinup anymore. “I just wanted to come and play in his playground for a while, and follow him,” Tatum said of Hill. “I’m holding onto the coattails.”
It didn’t look that way when you saw the film. In a sense, Tatum was relying on a familiar strategy of many a hunky heartthrob — i.e., undercut your good looks by being the slightly dim guy — but here’s the thing: He was very, very good at playing dumb. Sure, Greg wasn’t very bright, but Tatum exuded a soulful sweetness so that we saw that the guy just needed to grow up a little. There’s really a good person in there, and Morton will help him find it. But first, they’ll have to relive high school by, like the characters on the old TV show, going undercover as teenagers.
The 21 Jump Street movie wasn’t trying to be a spoof, per se, but Lord and Miller were hip enough to know what was ridiculous about the original series — namely, that these cops didn’t look like high-schoolers — which the film gleefully mocks. But the film’s other masterstroke was to reverse the popularity dynamics Morton and Greg faced back when they were kids. To their shock, modern teens are far more sensitive and thoughtful than the ones from the 1980s — or how they’re portrayed in 1980s movies — and now Greg is the outcast because he’s just a bully, while Morton is seen as cool because he’s smart. Before “being woke” was a culture-war talking point, 21 Jump Street lampooned the outrage around “snowflakes,” forcing Morton to stop being a dude who uses homophobic slurs because he thinks they’re funny. Maybe it was a fantasy, but the movie showed us that a former bully could change his ways — and, in the process, realize that the kid he tormented back in high school is actually a pretty great guy.
Deeper ideas are nice, of course, but comedies don’t work unless they’re funny, and 21 Jump Street remains very, very funny. It’s vulgar and crass and inappropriate, and quite often the humor is aimed at the two knucklehead leads, who are hardly good policemen, although they’re trying their best. In our age of “Defund the Police,” maybe the idea of incompetent cops isn’t your bag, but the film has such charm and irreverence that it’s hard not to see the whole thing as a parody of the amped-up machismo of cop movies in general. Morton and Greg are idiots who bought into the idea of cops being dick-swinging studs, only to learn it’s actually more complicated than that.
And the supporting roles are all really nicely cast. As the beleaguered deputy chief, Nick Offerman was just starting to taste stardom thanks to Parks and Recreation, while Ice Cube’s so-stereotypical-even-he-knows-it police captain seemed thrilled to get to swear in a movie after so many adorable family flicks. (Also, having a former member of N.W.A, which became notorious for a song called “Fuck tha Police,” play a cop is a good joke in and of itself.) Brie Larson was years away from an Oscar when she played Morton’s adorkable love interest, and Dave Franco (as a drug dealer) was still living in the shadow of his brother James. Again and again, Lord and Miller captured lightning in a bottle. If you were putting this movie together today, it would have cost so much more to assemble what became a pretty famous ensemble of actors.
All the while, 21 Jump Street has a blast sending up action-movie tropes. Hill got his wish — they did, indeed, blow shit up — but the over-the-top sequences never felt excessive. And the film even managed to do a twist on one of the genre’s worst clichés — the “diving in front of your partner to take a bullet for them” bit — and managed to make it funny. But because Lord and Miller cared about their characters, a real bond grows between these two dummies, both of them dealing with adolescent angst in adulthood. For Morton, it’s about re-experiencing the trauma of being a nerd — and having to deal with your overbearing parents — and for Greg, it’s the terror of worrying that, without his coolness, he doesn’t have anything. 21 Jump Street didn’t overdo the psychoanalysis, but there’s something real at the core of all this movie’s great laughs: that terrible fear of wanting to be liked.
21 Jump Street was a huge hit, prompting a sequel, which was also really funny. But its impact wasn’t just felt at the box office. Lord and Miller were suddenly seen as a fresh new comedic voice, quickly moving on to The Lego Movie. (Alas, they were fired from Solo, but they helped bring Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse into the world, winning an Oscar as producers.) A few months after 21 Jump Street, Hill got Oscar-nominated for Moneyball, further proving he wasn’t just that obnoxious dude from Superbad, while Tatum earned acclaim for Magic Mike, parlaying 21 Jump Street’s success into other comedic roles, such as in this year’s The Lost City. And 21 Jump Street created a template for other tongue-in-cheek remakes — albeit ones that weren’t nearly as satisfying. (I’m thinking, of course, of the terrible Dwayne Johnson Baywatch, which is like 21 Jump Street without any brains or soul.)
Nobody would have expected all of those ripple effects when 21 Jump Street premiered way back in March of 2011. In fact, people weren’t expecting much of anything. That’s how Lord and Miller like it. “Everything we’ve ever done has been riding on low expectations,” Miller joked when 22 Jump Street opened. “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs? What a terrible idea. Doing 21 Jump Street as a movie is a terrible idea. The Lego Movie sounds like a terrible idea. If people think (22 Jump Street) is a good idea, we’re screwed.”
Ten years later, 21 Jump Street doesn’t sneak up on anyone — we all know how good it is. But the damn thing still plays so well — not only does it hold up, it’s still funny. The film’s so good, you may not even mind that Johnny Depp cameo.