The Washington Post

‘21 Jump Street’ revamps cliche

Change happens in a lot of weird ways.  I finally saw “21 Jump Street” and was ready to hate on it for co-opting an edgy multi-culti cop drama into yet another goofy white guy buddy film.

Channing Tatum, left, and Jonah Hill are shown in a scene from the film "21 Jump Street." (Scott Garfield/AP)

But these days, with the general decay of meaning pervading most media messaging, the appropriate response seems to be, “So, by ‘good,’ what are we talking about exactly? Fully entertaining? Funny? Politically progressive?”

I’m happy to report that an argument can be made that this movie meets all those criteria. First off, it’s a great cast: the best thing since Channing Tatum’s done since, yup “She’s the Man.” Also, Bril Larson returns after a great turn in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” and the movie makes great use of DeRay Davis’s dark mania.

This movie is a lot like another successful film adaptation of a “culturally resonant” TV cop show: “Charlie’s Angels.”  It doesn’t insult the viewer’s intelligence and takes us on a goofy, self-conscious thrill ride in a bubblegum alternate universe that comments on its own genre conventions as it delivers the goods. (Is this “The New Sophistication” I keep hearing about?)

Although “Charlie’s Angels” was interested in good-looking female characters kicking butt with a wink and a smile, “Jump Street” takes on generational divides, especially in relation to “coolness” and social acceptance. A lot of the comedy is based on how high school has changed (even since 2005).

The Cool Kids are now environmentally conscious, Internet-bred, smarmy and sensitive elitists instead of the cruel jocks we’re familiar with. In this way, it’s kind of a cool take on the fish-out-of-water comedy, as the undercover cops in high school get a second chance at identity construction. Jonah Hill’s pudgy nerd is now cool, and Tatum’s dumb jock is a kind of laughing stock. Yay, change!

Unfortunately, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  I’m consistently impressed by how inventive and ingenious folks can be in coming up with “new takes” on ... old stuff. This movie was a weird kind of stunning achievement in taking the tired old cop buddy story and making it interesting.

“Charlie’s Angels” had the advantage of ... you know ... those good-looking angels kicking butt, which is in itself kind of interesting and new, but it still had to walk a tonal tightrope between exploitation and satire.

The original “21 Jump Street” had the feel of at least trying to be fresh in its content, (a sexy Asian detective? Edgy!) while this movie seems to have given up on changing its thesis and is just kind of saying old stuff in a new (yes, fun and entertaining) way.

But I still have to wonder: Where do I have to go to see movies like this that aren’t simply reinforcing the same old structures with the latest state-of-the-art techniques?  I know these movies need to make money, but come on!

But don’t get me wrong, looking to “Charlie’s Angels” as the model for TV adaptations is so the move it’s not even funny (even if the kung fu is weirdly dated).

And, this movie feels just as edgy somehow, even though it’s from like, a zillion years ago.

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