Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Review: 21 Jump Street

21 Jump Street (2012)
Directed by: Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Written by: Michael Bacall
Starring: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube, Brie Larson, Rob Riggle

Early on in this "adaptation" of the late-80s cop show 21 Jump Street, the Metropolitan City police chief makes sure to mention the inherent hackery of "reviving" old ideas. This sort of meta-"wink, wink" -- both the name of the city and the tacit admission of guilt by the filmmakers (Lord and Miller, of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs fame) -- is exactly what sets this version of 21 Jump Street apart from most hackneyed adaptations... and indeed most mainstream comedies of today. I certainly wouldn't have thought it going in, but 21 Jump Street is a whip-smart laugh-fest that isn't afraid to kick you in the balls, even as it winks knowingly.

It doesn't take 21 Jump Street long to start turning expectations on their head (all the better to to do the presumed beer bong). After the obligatory chunk of backstory and the training montage, the nerdy Schmidt (Hill) and ex-jock Jenko (Tatum), through a series of moronic events, wind up at 21 Jump Street, the headquarters for the whole "cops undercover in high school" unit that is the crux of the TV show and the reason for this adaptation. A (telegraphed) mix-up in the principal's office leads to their identities being switched. Suddenly, it is Schmidt who has to fit in with the popular kids, while Jenko is relegated to nerd duty.

Only it turns out that both of them are more suited to the task than they'd have thought -- which is where the movie really gets interesting. Nowadays, to Jenko's chagrin, the popular kids are multiracial (and sexual), tolerant, vegan, drama kids. In short: nerds. Gone are the traditional letterman jacket-adorned beefcake bullies. Schmidt, who wound up on the wrong end of that equation too many times in high school (usually, it is intimated, at the hands of Jenko), is overjoyed at the chance to be popular, while Jenko, now the outcast, is forced to bond with the science nerds (who are still outcasts here -- some things never change). This puts the now-buddy-buddy Schmidt and Jenko's partnership to the test as they try to get to the bottom (well, top) of a high school drug ring.

But before you can really say, "Hey, that's clever!" the movie begins an almost wearying (in a good way) assault of gross-out and physical comedy. With talent like Hill, Riggle, and bit player Chris Parnell, it is only to be expected. The movie's first (of many) truly gut-busting moments is when the duo are forced to try the new designer drug they are supposed to be investigating. The resulting trip takes them on a (magical mystery) tour of all the school cliques -- drama, band, track, science, etc., with the filmmakers mining as much humor out of the identity switch as they can. All the high school movie clichés are utilized as the movie progresses -- boy meets girl, a house party (another highlight), and, of course, prom -- but the distance provided by the main conceit allows for a fresh perspective, saving the film from the sand trap of worn out tropes.

The movie also riffs on the buddy cop genre -- jokes abound about car chases, explosions, and shootouts, while Ice Cube is a walking, yelling, self-aware stock character as the duo's angry black Captain (it's also great to see him out of the dreaded Murphy Territory). Viewers with a keen eye will also be rewarded with a variety of gags about the generic-ness of the setting (see the Metropolitan City mention above), as well as a number of references to the original series (aside from the one obvious one). All in all, this is a much more intelligent adaptation than the franchise probably deserves -- Hill (who co-wrote the story), Bacall, Lord, and Miller clearly put a lot of care into this. What could have been a one-note parody or dumb action-comedy is instead a slick, clever, self-aware nugget of pop culture gold. It leaves me wishing more filmmakers would give this sort of treatment to the rip-offs and hack-jobs Hollywood seems intent on shoving down our throats. Fortunately (although it is probably just a final poke at movie tropes), a sequel is hinted at just before the credits. If it's real, I'd be the first one in line for 21 Jump Street: The College Years.

Rating: ****1/2 (out of five)

Friday, March 23, 2012

Review: Rampart

Rampart (2011)
Directed by: Oren Moverman
Written by: James Ellroy and James Ellroy
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Ice Cube, Sigourney Weaver, Steve Buscemi

Rampart marks Woody Harrelson's second collaboration with writer/director Oren Moverman, after 2009's The Messenger. The first go-round resulted in Oscar nominations for both (Supporting Actor for Harrelson, Original Screenplay for Moverman). This time, Harrelson and Moverman change uniforms -- instead of the Army, they explore the 1990s LAPD corruption scandal (with the help of L.A. milieu king James Ellroy, cowriter). While Rampart is not as successful -- it is a more uneven, less affecting ride as a whole -- it is also a vehicle for what is possibly Harrelson's finest performance to date. As LAPD (and Vietnam) veteran "Date Rape" Dave Brown, Harrelson is coolly evil, a self-aware sociopath in navy and Aviators.

Appearing in every scene -- indeed, nearly every frame -- Harrelson needs to be magnetic, and is. There is a certain manic glee to his performance, even as he spouts racist and misogynist vitriol -- Harrelson's irrepressible charm tempers Brown's acute misanthropy. There is also a certain frightening intelligence to Brown -- some of the film's most harrowing scenes don't take place in dark Los Angeles alleys or seedy sex clubs (although the film does go both places), but in LAPD conference rooms. Brown drops SAT words and legal jargon just as easily -- and just as convincingly -- as he does four-letter words and epithets. The scariest thing about Dave Brown -- and all cops, really, as the generic name seems to suggest -- is that he knows he can get away with anything if he hides behind the right precedent or procedure.

And Brown gets away with a lot. All the corrupt cop clichés are here -- drinking on the job, doing drugs, beating down (and worse) anyone unfortunate enough to get in his way. This might have well been called Bad Lieutenant: Los Angeles. No, Rampart does not break any new ground in the corrupt cop genre, but it walks a fine line that not many other entries in the genre have. Rampart neither completely demonizes nor completely humanizes Dave Brown. The film neither endorses nor condemns him. He uses his back story about killing a serial date rapist to get laid at a bar. He guns down a robbery victim only to give some of the money to the robber (before taking the rest for himself). Dave Brown may be a violent, racist sociopath, yes, but he's a violent, racist sociopath with a heart of... well, let's just say he has a heart. Probably.

This is evidenced by the scenes with his family. As an example of the film's unevenness, Brown lives with his two ex-wives, as well as one daughter from each -- one a nascent teenage lesbian, the other not yet old enough to hate him. The pseudo-polygamy is never explained, nor does it seem particularly important. Regardless, Harrelson gives Brown something approaching vulnerability when around his family. When soundly harangued by the younger of his ex-wives, he walks away, wordlessly and expressionlessly, but obviously devastated. You almost feel sorry for him until you remember everything she said was true. A later scene with his daughters is equally heartbreaking -- not for Brown, but for the daughter that finally realizes she should -- and does -- hate her father. And the father knows it. With such a wide range of emotional tones, Dave Brown is a meaty part, and Harrelson sets into it with fervor.

Rampart is basically a one-man show, and good thing, because most of the supporting performances fall flat. Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche are one-note shrews as Brown's exes, a ragged-looking Robin Wright never seems to fit into the bigger picture as a lawyer who sleeps with Brown, Steve Buscemi is wasted as an LAPD bureaucrat, and Ice Cube is rote as the Internal Affairs officer on Brown's tail (who curiously doesn't show up until the third act). Better are Brie Larson as Brown's conflicted older daughter and Sigourney Weaver, who holds her own going tête-à-tête with Brown, as his superior. Messenger star Ben Foster makes a cameo appearance as a mentally disturbed vet/vagrant as well. All are just butterflies in Brown's hurricane, however.

Nevertheless, Harrelson's performance is strong enough to elevate some of the more trying scenes to respectability. Where the film is at its weakest is in its technical aspects. While Ellroy's script is explosive and moving at times, Moverman's direction fails to reign in its tendencies to spiral into arbitrary tangents (the dueling ex-wives, the sex club) and lurching to uninteresting places (Ned Beatty's doddering gangster and pal of Brown's father). Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski's L.A. is washed out and lifeless (this ain't Michael Mann's L.A.), and the camera moves when it should stay and stays when it should move far too often. There was a time when Harrelson was tabbed as a dark horse Best Actor nominee (interesting that the fifth nomination went to another performance from an L.A. movie -- Demián Bichir in A Better Life). He obviously didn't get the nomination, although you can easily make the case that the blame lies elsewhere. This is Harrelson's show, yes, but he doesn't have a whole lot of help.

Rating: ***1/2 (out of five)