1½ “Starsky and Hutch” + 1 Mark Wahlberg = 2½ 21 Jump Street
The revelation is Channing Tatum, who proves himself a winning comedic presence opposite Jonah Hill, who spends much of the movie playing Jonah Hill. It’s early in Tatum’s career, yet he’s discovered the winning formula: Call it the Wahlberg/Pitt Inverted Matrix of Leading Man Looks. When you’re as beefy hot as Mark Wahlberg, Brad Pitt, or Channing Tatum, casting directors see you as leading man material. They see a pin-up both teenage girls, on dates with boyfriends who also admire muscles, and their mothers, the same age as Thelma and Louise, will flock to theaters for.
The problem is that guys who know how good-looking they are have a hard time playing earnest without looking smug. The leading man corrective is to be overly serious, and thus, boring. Think Brad Pitt in “A River Runs Through It,” “Legends of the Fall,” “Seven Years in Tibet,” and “Meet Joe Black.” Mark Wahlberg’s dull misfires: “The Perfect Storm,” “Planet of the Apes,” and “The Truth About Charlie,” for starters. Both Pitt’s and Wahlberg’s careers turned when they let their freak flags fly. “I Heart Huckabees” is a little seen film, but marks a major shift in the Wahlberg canon: His unhinged firefighter Tommy Corn stole the movie. Wahlberg didn’t stifle his intensity into a Hollywood template; rather, he played a parody of the brooding leading man. Since then, Wahlberg has played leading men, but it seems that experience in comedy has freed him. He earned his first Oscar nomination for “The Departed” in a role that’s basically comic relief from the earnestness of Leonardo DiCaprio—he dominates every scene by messing with other actors, rather than trying to match them. He’s infused more charisma into his screen persona—imagine the “AND YOU! AND YOU! AND YOU!” scene from “The Fighter” performed by early 2000s Wahlberg. We knew his was a freak the moment Dirk Diggler let Roller Girl keep her skates on—after a lull, he’s transformed.
The same is easier seen in Brad Pitt. Good Pitt is Dark and Freaky Pitt: “True Romance,” “Se7ev,” “Twelve Monkeys,” “Fight Club,” and others. Starting with Tyler Durden and continuing with the incomprehensible Irish boxer in “Snatch” Pitt showed real comedic chops: The “Ocean’s” films, “Burn After Reading,” even “Inglourious Basterds,” in its way. As he’s gotten older, his embrace of the freak has evolved into a kind of past-prime dignity: Jesse James, “The Tree of Life,” and especially “Moneyball.” Perhaps it’s instructive that both Wahlberg and Pitt have played lieutenants to George Clooney (“Three Kings” and “Ocean’s”).
This is not to say that Channing Tatum is the next Brad Pitt or Mark Wahlberg. But “21 Jump Street” does suggest that he—or at least his agent—gets it. They threatened to typecast him in action movies (“G.I. Joe” The Rise of the Cobra” and “Public Enemies”) The problem, again, is that leading man looks restrain the man. Tatum tried to develop “range” by jumping into the Nicolas Sparks weeper “Dear John,” where, yes, he played a solider on leave who falls in love with Amanda Seyfried. But look to pre-star Tatum: Kimberly Peirce’s “Stop-Loss,” with Tatum as the unhinged best friend of Ryan Phillippe who can’t deal with post-Iraq PTSD. It’s the kind of role Jeremy Renner now owns, but in the very least, you can see the space where Tatum could plant his freak flag.
Comedy seems to have unshackled Tatum from his leading man looks and soldier-boy frame. Part of being the leading man is being liked, but when the actor doesn’t have the easy grace of old Hollywood or George Clooney, he tries too hard to be “likable,” which comes off as dull or earnest. Audiences sense this: We’d rather have charismatic authenticity. For Channing Tatum,” 21 Jump Street” lets him play a parody of his typecast. He’s the dumbass jock, and by channeling his inner Stifler, he gets laughs at the outset. The genius of his performance is that, when the plot unbelievable twists him and Jonah Hill into high school buddies a few years later, Tatum is genuinely mystified by the pussification of it all. Fighting and being dumb and not trying are suddenly not cool. WTF?!?!
The rest of the movie is too-meta, too-knowing over-cleverness (Ice Cube is the police captain of 21 Jump Street, with a training montage set to “Fuck da Police”). In the very least, though, Channing Tatum handles physical comedy (several scenes sliding over or jumping into cars) and turns the dumb jock into a lovable lunkhead. This could be the beginning of a new actor, or in the very least, it creates the possibility that Soderbergh-directed “Magic Mike” is closer to “Boogie Nights” than “Showgirls.”