I do faintly remember seeing a trailer for 22 Jump Street in cinema. My wife and I instantly knew that it was silly, stupid trash that we didn't need to watch. People drinking in college? How funny and entertaining. I'm not a party person, never were, and so, this movie wasn't in any way interesting to us. Getting 21 Jump Street and its sequel therefore in order to continue my Channingography project felt a bit like a chore. But as with Magic Mike, I was pleasently surprised. Quite a lot, actually.
And that really is surprising, because the genre itself isn't usually something I like. I'd describe it as action comedy with a lot of parody elements. Let me give you a quick synopsis before we go into a discussion.
In 2005, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenk (Channing Tatum) pass High School. Jenko is a jock, Schmidt is a nerd. Both go to the police, and fast forward in 2012, they're at the lowest spot in the pecking order, still basically children if now in adult's bodies, and desperate to get ahead. After a fuck-up they get assigned to undercover unit 21 Jump Street and an assignment to infiltrate High School to flush out a drug dealer.
In 2014, they do the exact same thing again, this time in 22 Jump Street (get it?). Only this time, they're in college, not in High School. But it's the exact same plot otherwise, a fact that the movie points out with alarming regularity.
The humor in these movies is not exactly subtle. The unit commander, played by Ice Cube, resides in a cube. His name is Captain Dickson, and if you think the penis jokes stop there, you're sorely mistaken. Meta jokes also abound; the characters are all genre savvy. And so on.
This should be a simple paint-by-numbers thing, using Hill's and Tatum's natural chemistry and charisma, but surprisingly, it's much more than that. A good deal of that comes from the fact that all characters are genre savvy, because this allows the movies to subtely subvert expectations of audience and characters alike, but it's also poignant in how it defies several of the more clicheed tropes that are harmful and instead try to say something of substance. Let's not get ahead of ourselves, though.
The throughline joke of both movies is that it's utterly ridiculous anyone would believe these 30ish men could pass as High Schoolers or even College attendees. While everyone likes to point out how old they look, nobody ever seriously questions it (which basically extends to other characters as well, it's not like James Franco would look the High School part, either).
The same is true about the ridiculouness of the Jump Street unit itself, which is treated as an utter joke (including a cameo by Johnny Depp in 22 Jump Street), while at the same time dumping on the idea of sequels that are doing the same thing, only bigger (EVERYONE in 22 Jump Street comments on this concept, and the whole credits are an extended riff on uninspired sequels). In that context, the biggest gag these movies pull is that there's no third one to fill up a trilogy.
But there are subtler things going on than these enjoyable meta-jokes. They're very progressive considering their release dates in 2012 and 2014, respectively. Jenko, Channing Tatum's character, for example harangues everyone for making homophobic jokes or comments. Women refuse to play the parts these movies usually reserve for them (including a Walk of Shame for Schmidt!), and so on.
The thing I loved best, though, was the subversion of the jock-nerd-dynamic. While Schmidt and Jenko are introduced in a slightly antagonistic way - Schmidt is asking the hot girl out for prom and gets rejected to the laughter of Jenko - the two of them become best buddies in police academy, playing into their respective strengths and developing mutual respect. It's not so much that they were adversaries in High School; they just lived in different universes that practically didn't cross.
But the genius comes when they return to High School. It's been only seven years, but everything changed. Jenko quickly has to realize that his attempts at teaching Schmidt how to be cool are utterly wasted, not because Schmidt couldn't perform, but because Jenko's jock coolness is out of fashion. It's the nerd's world now, full in the grip of Nerdstream, and while Schmidt is able to gain all the recognition from a new generation of students that he never got, Jenko is relegated to the sidelines - only to fall in with the geeks. They're not oppressed like Schmidt back in the day, more secluded.
That way, there are surprisingly deep character arcs, character arcs that feel incredibly true. I concluded the Germany's High School equivalent in 2005 as well, and I finished university in 2011, returning to school as a trainee teacher in 2012, so this feels incredibly personal for me - and true. There is a new generation of students, and the amount of bullying, shaming and exclusion has gone down considerably. I can feel for Jenko's experiences, because I can see them every day, but I feel A LOT for Schmidt - including the temptations he falls for. He has the chance to basically relive the final year of High School in an absolute dream state. This is a fantasy a lot of people can emphasize with, I guess, and the central conflict of the movie isn't to catch the damn dealer, it's to resist that temptation.
The script is subtly flipped again in 22 Jump Street. Neither Jenko nor Schmidt went to College, obviously, so this chance is new. But defying expectations, it's not Schmidt who is tempted here, but Jenko. Quarterback Zoot (Wyatt Russell, of "Falcon and the Winter Soldier" fame) includes Jenko in the team, offering him a chance for a scholarship and a way out of the police into a better life - drug dealers be damned. This character conflict drives the action in the second movie, and it's once again played entirely straight.
So is College. While there's a lot of partying, it still feels like a realistic experience, because it's clear that all these young people are torn between the urge to enjoy themselves as much as possible and taste the fruits of youth that Schmidt and Jenko pointedly missed and are now trying to recreate on the one hand and the realization of their live goals on the other hand.
That way, the movies piognantly tell something about do-overs, nostalgia, High School and College. Below the veneer of unseriousness and screwball comedy that the trailers promised (and sold to great success) there's a surprisingly deep well of things to reflect.
The movies are also wickedly funny, though.