[13 June 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Welcome to the A-list, Channing Tatum. If you weren’t already there (and we can debate this concept for as long as you like), you will certainly be among the biggies come the release of 22 Jump Street. In the nine years since you’ve been in the movie (yes, you’re a relative short-timer in the industry) you’ve gone from “that buff dancing dude” in films like Step Up and its sequel, to wannabe action hero in such efforts as G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, The Eagle, and White House Down.
Oddly enough, it won’t be your hoofing and huffing that get you in good with the studio suits. No, it will be your ability to mock your own machismo, be it as part of the excessively profitable Magic Mike movies (there’s a sequel to the male stripper epic in the works) or the equally enjoyable Jump Street films.
Indeed, who knew you had such insane comedy chops? When it was first announced that you would be joining Jonah Hill for a remake of the Johnny Depp/Richard Grieco TV kiddie cop drama, many a moviegoer wondered what the end result would be. Thanks to the efforts of directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, along with screenwriter Michael Bacall, the answer was a witty, in-joke filled farce where the whole idea of undercover policemen in secondary school was tweaked to within an inch of its high concept.
After recouping five times its budget at the box office, the desire for a sequel was obvious. But after answer the “why?” - money - the “how?” came into play. Luckily, Lord and Miller remembered the key to their overall career arc (making the amazing out of the addled) and decided to satire sequels in general, while playing by their predetermined cinematic rules at the same time.
The result is Last Action Hero with Tatum taking on the Arnold role, a buff bo-hunk with a frantic female fanbase readily able to deconstruct his onscreen persona to play bubbling, buffoonish, and bland. While some will read that description and say “oh - typecasting” others will understand just how hard it is to do stupid on film. If you could ask some of our Golden Era greats—Marilyn Monroe, Judy Holliday—they would make it very clear that impersonating a dolt has its detriments, the biggest being that everyone thinks you’re an idiot in real life.
Tatum’s task is even taller, considering he’s a guy (for some reason, ‘dumb blonde’ has always meant a female… how chauvinistic) and playing into stereotypes created by decades of buddy comedy rules. For example, he should get the gal…and doesn’t. He should save the day, and barely does.
Instead, the trope tweaking of 22 Jump Street goes all the way to the narrative itself. Everything about this movie is meta. The title is derived from the fact that their new, big budget police headquarters is just across the street (with 23 Jump Street Condos already under construction). This time around, Schmidt (Hill) has the main story arc, as he is the cast aside college geek who glooms about campus like so many university underachievers only to land a hot gal (Amber Stevens) and come incredibly close to solving the case.
The crime this time? Well, as angry boss Captain Dickson puts it, it’s exactly the same as before. There’s a new drug making the rounds called “WHYPHY” (pronounced WiFi) and the police want the source uncovered. Initially, it looks like local kingpin Ghost (Peter Stormare) is responsible. But once Jenko (Tatum) and Schmidt show up at MU College, that trail turns cold.
While hanging out with the undergrads, our partners soon shift into archetype mode. Schmidt gets in good with the art kids and attempts slam poetry. Jenko becomes a jock bro with the local frat and is soon starring on the football team. In between, they try and do some police work, but for most of the movie, they languish in the kind of contemporized Animal House ideals that have defined the dynamic among most post-high school teens.
With jokes aimed directly at their aged looks (especially from Jillian Bell, who is merciless in her treatment of Hill) and anti-sequel sentiments (the entire set-up with Deputy Chief Hardy (Nick Offerman) is a treatise against hit revisits), 22 Jump Street makes its superfluousness clear. We laugh because we recognize ourselves in the viewership mocked by this movie.
There are also sequences that are stand-alone sensational even without all the self-referential business. When Capt. Dickson finds out who Schmidt has been bedding, both Ice Cube and Tatum’s reaction are the height of hilarity. Just watching the latter strut around and high five the rest of the Jump Street staff is worth the price of admission alone.
Equally enjoyable is the sequence where a cost-wary duo try to keep a golf cart/Hummer chase from racking up reimbursement receipts. After taking out every expensive thing on campus (including an entire robot laboratory), you’ll be rolling in the aisles with laughter. Perhaps the best bit comes at the end, when Schmidt takes on an unlikely foe. Their back and forth, including awkward sexual suggestions, is another bit of classic comedy.
In fact, for all its asides and insularity, 22 Jump Street works best as a straight up side splitter. When it’s not busy debunking film franchises (the post-credits material is must-see) it provides us with two characters who come across as easy to identify with and legitimately likable. Their interactions bring more smiles to our faces than the occasional homages and obvious references.
And the big winner in all this is Tatum. Hill already has a pair of Oscar nods, his association with Judd Apatow (and his scatology-based offspring, Seth Rogen), and his own career complexities to contend with. Tatum, on the other hand, is just coming into his own. A decade from now, these Jump Street turns might be seen as mistakes. On the other hand, considering how easy it is to make a bad comedy, they should be viewed as what they are: successes, thanks in no small part to the muscled man with the dipstick demeanor.