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'21 Jump Street'

by Jake Mynatt

High school is a special kind of torment. It breaks you down into the raw components that will form the foundation of adulthood. Some do well and become human towers of architectural marvel. Others, like Ronnie, become human Jenga games teetering precariously over the open mouth of oblivion.

Ronnie’s two-week experiment in sobriety had been going well. A minor case of the shakes followed by an intestinal episode comparable to a Mentos delivery truck smashing into a Diet Coke factory was the worst of the physical consequences. The emotional impact, however, saw Ronnie looking into the mirror for long stretches of inner exploration. Tears were shed. Punches thrown into the air. But ultimately, a settlement with the demons was in the process of being drawn up by the law firm of Id, Ego, and Esteem.

And then the mail came.

Ronnie’s twenty-year reunion was right around the corner. No sooner did he read the words “hope to see you there!” than his lips met the mouth of the bottle of Southern Comfort he had “forgotten” was stashed in the toilet tank. With his cheeks puffed out in squirrel-like orbs full of the hot, sweet, stinging liquor, he delayed swallowing long enough to catch a glimpse of himself in the mirror. He didn’t so much spit it out as he just opened his mouth and let it fall into the sink, and with the drool descending from his face he recited his new mantra, “this too shall pass.”

With the will to keep from swallowing the booze came the responsibility to face the demon that put it into his hands in the first place. So as Ronnie left to attend a celebration of something that had ended two decades ago but was now being given a comic new life, I was inspired to watch 21 Jump Street on my laptop.

21 Jump Street follows the formula of TV-to-film reboots like Dragnet and Starsky & Hutch which call out the ridiculousness of the original as the central joke. It’s hard to be critical of the stories in these types of movies because they’re usually nothing more than a delivery system for jokes with caricatures of the original series’ characters. So it comes down to whether or not the jokes work.

Surprisingly, 21 Jump Street manages to exist in the oddball, self-aware universe of that formula but also delivers characters we care about. Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are a pair of newbie cops whose co-dependent relationship isn’t something you’d expect given their interactions in high school. Back then, Jenko was the stud jock and Schmidt was the tubby little reject. Jenko didn’t necessarily pick on Schmidt, but he didn’t mind laughing along with the crowd.

Jenko and Schmidt are not characters from the original series, but they exist in an extension of that show’s reality through some funny cameos and outright acknowledgement of the recycled nature of the plot. Most of the film could have stood on its own with no call back to the original. It has a keen eye for pointing out the overused tropes it indulges in. But the humor is more than just self-referential or amazed with its own ability to call back the trivia of yesteryear. It relates to universal themes of teenage isolation and fear that echoes through adulthood, giving physical manifestation of long suppressed trauma. You know. Comedy.

When thrown back into that dynamic, many of those old behaviors will re-emerge. This was evidenced by the various Twitter accounts giving up to the minute reports of the reunion in progress, such as @RandyIndustries announcing “Ronnie Da Dope Man Iz Bakk!” With some further Google research, I discovered that @RandyIndustries is actually Randall Blough (like “cough” with a BL instead of the C), once counted among the school’s highest achievers and third runner-up for valedictorian. Now he’s a multi-level marketing guru who is selling more than just an effective way to get grape juice stains out of drapery; he’s selling a way of life.

21 Jump Street takes the idea of returning to the old dynamics of high school a step further by reversing the roles Jenko and Schmidt will play. Jock becomes brainiac and the outcast becomes the popular kid as the two mix up their pre-defined undercover identities given to them by Captain Dickson, played to pissed off perfection by Ice Cube. One of the great joys of the movie is how many comic possibilities are set up early on.

As comic possibilities go, there was one teeing up that I was able to view via a live web-cast of Ronnie’s reunion being streamed from the iPads of the newly re-formed AV squad. Ronnie had been presented with a nice tall bottle of Maker's Mark and was surrounded by a Thunderdome arena of his former classmates telling him to “Chug! Chug! Chug!” To his credit, his first few responses held the chanting at bay. His “can’t do it, guys” and “I don’t drink any more” caused the roar to die down.

And then she stepped in.

Five feet and eleven inches of blonde Venusian goddess in a red dress so tight that it labored her breathing. Wilma Hutchison. Ronnie’s high school sweetheart. These are the times that try men’s souls.

“Chug it ya fuckin’ sissybitch!” she bellowed. On command he cracked the top and took down a quarter of the bottle in a single pull. The crowd erupted, and Ronnie proceeded to lay waste to the open bar.

In Ronnie’s day, he had achieved legendary status for his partying ways. He was voted “most likely to die while waiting for a liver transplant.” Those like him were the wasteoids and the drop-outs. Now it’s the cool kids and the rich kids. And in the movie, it’s the undercover cops themselves, raiding the evidence locker for party supplies. Twenty years ago, the show promoted an anti-drug message at the height of Reagan-era “just say no” social engineering. I have to admit, I appreciated the socially irresponsible message of the movie.

I also appreciated the action. Or rather, how it was handled. A lot of “action comedies” approach the action scenes as straight-forward. They try to wow us with their stunts. Here, the action is plot and joke driven. The big chase scene of the second act calls out the absurdities of chase scenes without trying to top them in earnest. This movie knows it’s not Lethal Weapon and it doesn’t try to be.

With nobody in the house, it felt good to be able to laugh out loud. And I did several times during the film, which is rare for me these days. Modern comedies are either schmaltzy rom-coms, tedious “Not Another…” style satires, or gross-out body-fluid joke factories. Sometimes they can work in proper proportion. Bridesmaids achieved it. And so does 21 Jump Street. While it may not get an Oscar nomination for best screenplay like the former, it definitely bests it in delivery of laughs.

Ronnie will have little to laugh about in the morning, however. He arrived home by cab – a marked improvement over his usual practice of parking his car on the neighbor’s lawn and then passing out next to the garbage cans after fighting a raccoon for a pizza crust.

I’m sure he’ll take his alcoholic relapse in stride and begin his sobriety again, especially when he reads the Twitter feeds detailing the very public “tuggy” he got from Wilma on the dance floor. And when he realizes he had signed up as a “Randy Industries” reseller, offering name brand-like products at theoretically competitive prices.

As air-tight as the contract with Randy Industries is, it’s just one of the consequences of his actions he’ll need to learn to accept. But recovery will have to happen one day at a time. While he engages in his old ritual of hangover vomiting, his words echo from the toilet bowl “this too shall pass… this too shall pass…”

Image courtesy of the author


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Jake Mynatt is a writer as Charles Manson is a singer/songwriter. By trade, he's a computer guy. He's married, and loving it so much he hopes to start dozens of secret families all over the country. That's just a joke, unless you're interested. Send headshots and a signed pre-nup to jake.mynatt [at]