21 Jump Street: Hey, It's Better Than Dragnet!

Stop me if you've heard this one already: roughly two decades after a popular cop series has gone off the air, Hollywood gets the bright idea to remake it as a big-screen vehicle for two young, likeable stars (one of whom also writes the screenplay), which puts a decidedly comic spin on what used to be a straightforward procedural. At the same time, they also make sure to include a number of shout-outs to the source material in the form of visual gags, recycled sets and cameos from some of the stars of the original show. No, I'm not talking about the new version of that '80s chestnut 21 Jump Street that's arriving in theaters today, starring the unlikely duo of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. I'm referring to Dragnet, the 1987 Dan Aykroyd/Tom Hanks update of Jack Webb's iconic show, which aired from 1951-1959 and again from 1967-1970. (There were two later revivals as well, but neither of those starred Webb.) It's somehow fortuitous that Dragnet is celebrating its 25th anniversary the same year that 21 Jump Street arrives in theaters, because the two movies really do have a lot in common, except for one key thing... Jump Street is actually really funny. So why did this one succeed where its predecessor failed? We examine the evidence:

The Jump Street Movie Has a Better Comic Premise Than Dragnet
It's interesting to note that both movies employ a fish-out-of-water angle in translating their respective shows to the big screen in a more comic form. In Dragnet, Aykroyd's Joe Friday (who is introduced as the nephew of Webb's Friday, not a stand-in for the original) is a '50s guy living in an '80s world with an '80s yuppie partner in the form of Hanks's Pep Streebek. (And boy, does Dragnet look and sound distinctly '80s today, from the synth-heavy score to the big, poufy hairstyles that all the women -- and Hanks -- sport.) 21 Jump Street, meanwhile, sends its twentysomething undercover cops Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) back to high school to live and study alongside the most alien species of all: teenagers. But directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller and writers Hill and Michael Bacall push the joke one step further -- instead of just setting them down in a world they don't understand, the movie actually reintegrates the characters back into society and, better still, has them switch places. So Schmidt, the formerly dorky outsider, now becomes one of the coolest guys in school, while Jenko, an ex-big man on campus jock, is now forced to hang with the nerd herd. It's a storytelling decision that immediately gives the film a reliable comic engine and brings the best out of both stars, which leads us to our second point...

Hill and Tatum Are a Funnier Duo Than Aykroyd and Hanks
By the time they teamed up for Dragnet, Hanks and Aykroyd had separately starred in some of the most popular comedies of the '80s, from Trading Places and Ghostbusters to Splash and Bachelor Party. So casting them alongside each other must have seemed like a can't-miss proposition. Unfortunately, they don't mesh together at all, largely because Hanks doesn't have an actual character to play. Where Friday at least has his man-out-of-time shtick going on, Streebek is a personality-free cipher, leaving Hanks with no material to bounce off of his co-star. Not that Aykroyd puts a good deal of effort into engaging him -- he seems too intent on proving that he's the star of the movie and Hanks is just there as backup. In contrast, Hill and Tatum are full partners in Jump Street, with Hill -- by far the more experienced comic performer -- willingly ceding the screen to his co-star when Tatum is on a tear. In fact, I'm going to go out and say it: Tatum is absolutely hilarious in the movie and not in the unintentional way his stiff performances in romantic dramas like The Vow turn out to be. He's actually acting here and becomes a natural part of the ensemble instead of sticking out like a sore thumb. Hill is on point too, reining in the caustic excesses of The Sitter and Cyrus to create a more personable (while still tart-tongued) character. Hanks and Akyroyd never shared the screen again after Dragnet, but these two deserve to reunite, whether it's in a Jump Street sequel or something else entirely.

Teenage Drug Dealers Are More Entertaining Villains Than Sham Priests
While the plot is decidedly secondary in both Dragnet and Jump Street, the latter movie has a far better narrative to hang jokes on. After a botched drug bust exiles them to the Jump Street division, Schmidt and Jenko are tasked with finding the source of a new drug that's being passed around a local high school. In the process of their investigation, the two inadvertently sample this new narcotic for themselves, leading to one of the movie's funniest scenes in which the tripping cops wander around school in a drug-induced haze. Dragnet's central case involves Friday and Streebek trying to stop a havoc-causing cult that calls itself P.A.G.A.N. and is secretly led by one of the city's most prominent religious leaders: the Reverend Jonathan Whirley (played by none other than recent Oscar winner Christopher Plummer, who must wish he could erase this movie from his resume). It's an overly complicated scenario that doesn't yield very many laughs, especially since Plummer doesn't seem to realize that he's in a comedy. Whereas the big bads in Jump Street (whose identities I won't reveal to protect the innocent) get to be funny and intimidating -- a far better combination.

Jump Street Remembers That an Action Comedy Needs Both Action and Comedy
Dragnet and 21 Jump Street each commit the sin of packing too many car chases and shoot-outs into their respective finales. (That's a problem that ruins too many potentially great action comedies these days, including The Other Guys and Tropic Thunder. Only Hot Fuzz really pulled it off and that's because director Edgar Wright made sure that the film's action-packed climax played like the best parody of every shoot 'em up movie ever made.) But Jump Street at least makes an effort to integrate some comic beats into the action. Dragnet plays it straight, as if it's suddenly a real cop movie instead of a skewed version of one.

Jump Street Just Has More Laughs Than Dragnet
And this is really all it comes down to. I barely cracked a smile while watching Aykroyd and Hanks awkwardly stumble through Dragnet, but Hill and Tatum had me laughing early and often in Jump Street. In another 25 years, this movie will likely be as obscure as Dragnet is today, but at least it entertains in the moment and, in its own way, honors the source material at the same time it sends it up. Case closed.

Click here to read our Q&A with the Jump Street directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Click here to read our Q&A with Rob Riggle
Click here to read our interview with Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum
Click here to see what other '80s shows we'd like to see receive the big-screen treatment

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