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When I first told my friends and family that my latest assignment was traveling to New Orleans to scope out the set of 21 Jump Street, I could actually hear the eyes rolling on the other end of the phone. I, however, remained optimistic. Perhaps that’s because the original 80s television series premiered when I was a wee baby, so my connection to the source material was minimal – a factor that is true for a large portion of the film’s potential audience. The 1987 series followed young police officers as they went undercover in high schools to investigate drug trafficking and violence. Of course, the series has since become famous for helping to launch Johnny Depp into the national consciousness, and for that we thoroughly thank the now classic procedural. That being said, with such a sizable pop culture legacy, the series’ big screen reboot is bound to meet with some skepticism, but after spending a day chatting with the cast and crew on the New Orleans set, we learned one very important thing: the film is anything but a run-of-the-mill spoof.
We arrived on set one impossibly muggy day in the middle of June – the kind of day that makes you want to carry around a cooler of ice cold water at all times for fear of melting without it. As we stepped out of the car onto the grounds of the suburban high school just outside of the crescent city, filming for an outdoor scene was underway. Before meeting with producer Neal Moritz (Total Recall, The Change-Up), we witnessed a scene involving practically all of the film’s biggest players: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Dave Franco, and romantic interest Brie Larson. The transition scene at hand did little more than give as introduction to these characters (our undercover cop heroes, king of the cool kids, and the resident It girl) – an encounter that only heightened our curiosity as we headed into the high school’s gym to have a chat with the man who made the production possible.
Moritz walked us through the set, giving us a quick glimpse of the groups of extras dressed in varying versions of heightened high school stereotypes –your promiscuous goths and harajuku girls, the usual – before giving us the goods: the sizzle reel. As we enjoyed the montage of screenshots set to the rousing soundtrack of a big-time action flick, it was settled. Despite the fact that this film was a “passion project” for the series’ creator, the late Stephen J. Cannell, Moritz was sure to explain that it is not the 21 Jump Street of 1987. This was something completely different. Without giving away too much of the film’s plot – because that will take all the fun out of it – it became apparent very quickly that Moritz, screenwriter Michael Bacall (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), executive producer and co-story-writer Hill, and directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs) were putting together a film that shares the name and premise of its source material, while allowing the characters, tone and content to be respectfully different. It’s a nod to the original – and includes the requisite allusions to the TV version – but the film is very much a contemporary action comedy (big emphasis on the comedy), and nothing like a primetime melodrama focused on weekly life lessons.
Like Officer Tom Hanson and Sergeant Judy Hoffs before them, officers Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) are assigned to 21 Jump Street, a reboot of an old undercover operation from the 80s (nudge, nudge, get it?). Their first assignment is going undercover at Sagan High School to investigate a drug ring, and the similarities between the TV show and the film stop there. As Moritz explained it, “This movie is about two young guys who don't get respect as cops, and now have to go back into high school where they think they're going to be the big men.” He added, “They turn out to know high school less than any incoming freshman. They are just out of date,” and in addition, Schmidt and Jenko have the added bonus of having gone to high school together a few years earlier. The result? The pair have to experience the growing pains of high school all over again, while trying to stay the course for their undercover assignment. And as Lord and Miller later assured us, the humor is decidedly Rated R; “We have an F-bomb problem,” joked Miller.
And luckily for myself and my fellow bloggers, we got to experience firsthand just how hilarious our heroes’ arrangement turns out to be. Before we waltzed into the classroom-turned-film set, we got a little insight from the little lady playing Hill’s romantic interest, Brie Larson. She dished about one of her biggest challenges on set: holding back some serious giggle fits. Larson confessed that multiple times during filming, she had trouble staying in character, because her cast mates are just too damn funny. “You can see everyone back stage with hands over their mouth and tears coming up. I can't do anything! If I laugh, I screw this up for everybody,” she said. “It's like life or death in those moments and afterwards you just fall on the ground and you're just a wiggle worm. You can't stop.” And while I originally took her story with a grain of salt, when it was our turn to play spectator, I found myself clutching my hands over my mouth and shaking in an effort to contain the wild laughter fighting to get out. I can admit it now; I was wrong and Larson was right.
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