Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Is 21 Jump Street the most unlikely critical hit ever?

We rather liked 21 Jump Street around these parts. It is no masterpiece. But, given that it is an updating of a 1980s series almost nobody remembered, most critics were surprised that it managed to stand up straight without bruising …

Mon, Mar 19, 2012, 21:34

   
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We rather liked 21 Jump Street around these parts. It is no masterpiece. But, given that it is an updating of a 1980s series almost nobody remembered, most critics were surprised that it managed to stand up straight without bruising its knuckles on the ground. Channing Tatum (dumb, athletic) and Jonah Hill (smart, clumsy) make a very nice comic partnership and the film has a very singular tone. It feels improvised, but not to the point of indulgence.

Anyway, my point is that few films with this sort of heritage have achieved the degree of critical praise that has come the way of 21 Jump Street. It currently scores 86 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and 69 percent on Metacritic (the difference indicating consistent, but not hysterical support). Those are the sort of scores that usually greet Kurdish films about oppressed goat herders.

It is genuinely difficult to think of another picture that managed this sort of reversal. To be fair to us old hacks, it does demonstrate that, contrary to what many internet posters suggest, we do remain open to persuasion by low-brow material. Nobody wanted to hate This Means War, but McG and his uninterested cast made it impossible to feel any other way. If Adam Sandler had made some effort to become a woman — rather than just wearing a dress and using his regular voice — then we might have gone easier on Jack and Jill.

The financial and critical success of 21 Jump Street does, however, offer annoying Hollywood executives an excuse to continue travelling down a frustratingly stubborn dead end. Why do they keep making films of television series that were broadcast when the core audience was barely conscious or — in many cases — not even at the twinkle-in-eye stage? Remember that version of Bilko with Steve Martin? By 1996 even the reruns were fading into memory. Didn’t they shoot a version of The Honeymooners in Dublin (of all places)? That adaptation of The Mod Squad didn’t even make it across the Atlantic.

The producers can’t expect much return for the recognition factor. Everybody knows that mainstream comedies are aimed at people between 12 and 25. That lot were toddlers when 21 Jump Street finished. If Guy Ritchie ever gets round to releasing his proposed version of The Man From UNCLE, the original audience will be using Zimmer frames to propel themselves in any other direction.

There are two things going on. Firstly, film directors and producers are as sentimental as anybody else. They are just reliving happy memories from their own youths. Secondly, we must remember that good ideas — any ideas actually — are hard to come by. “Two cops go to high school? I like it,” Hiram Cashmountain remarks. “It was once a TV series? Who cares? Give ‘em the loot. That’s an idea.”

It is an idea. And, against all the odds, it spurned a film that got some of the best reviews of the year so far. The folk behind John Carter must be livid.

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