We’ll need a lot of ring space for this Smackdown, as it’ll be an energetic tag-team bout. Facing off will be two cop buddy comedies: In the new corner is 21 Jump Street, a very loose adaptation of the 1980s TV show about young undercovers, best remembered for introducing Johnny Depp to most of the world. Its opponent is The Other Guys, which follows the adventures of two police desk jockeys, looking to rebrand themselves as they get involved in a high-stakes fraud case.
Both movies are played for laughs, and both revolve around a pair of cops who don’t embody the highest ideals of the uniform, or even like each other. Still, the lead characters work in dangerous circumstances and carry guns, so this one might get messy. Let’s yellow-tape the area in front of the ring and watch these two squads slug it out.
As a high school kid the pudgy, orthodontically-challenged Schmidt (Jonah Hill) is a hopeless nerd. He’s teased mercilessly by the cool element, which includes Jenko (Channing Tatum), a muscle-headed jock. Once Schmidt escapes school, he enrolls in the police academy, where in a cruel turn of fate he’s paired with his old tormentor, Jenko, who’s also chosen law enforcement as a career. The two get their first assignment, but it’s not exactly NYPD Blue – they’re put on bicycle patrol in a local park. They spy a group of bikers smoking weed and attempt a collar, but the out-of-shape Schmidt has trouble catching one fleeing suspect, while the somewhat thick Jenko flubs the Miranda rights while handcuffing another.
In order to avoid further embarrassments, the police brass re-assign the two youthful recruits to a posting outside the immediate view of the public – an undercover unit that specifically targets high schools, headquartered in a derelict Korean church at the address of the title. Once again, Schmidt finds himself in teenage academia, his least favorite environment. Compounding that, the two are assigned to bust a popular group of students who supply the school with a powerful designer drug. This very odd cop couple must somehow find a way to combine their talents (such as they are), figure out a way to get along, and, incidentally, smash the drug ring and catch its supplier while they’re at it.
Much like the Jump Street duo, the two principals of The Other Guys don’t belong anywhere near each other. Mild-mannered police accountant Allen Gamble (Will Ferrell) is paired with hot-headed street cop Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg), but not as patrolmen. The two spend their days doing piles of dreary paperwork that constitute the back-office functions of their station. The dull, unambitious Gamble is perfectly suited for this work, but for Hoitz it’s a step down – he was once a patrolman but got knocked down to office detail when he accidentally shot New York Yankees star Derek Jeter while working a World Series game. Angry and embittered, he takes out his resentment on his long-suffering partner.
One day, Gamble discovers that a rich financier, David Ershon (Steve Coogan), has committed a scaffolding violation. Looking into the matter, he soon discovers the violation is the iceberg tip of a much larger conspiracy to defraud a public institution, seemingly the New York state lottery. This most unlikely pair of desk jockeys must combine forces to unravel the conspiracy and put the bad guy, or guys, behind bars.
These two movies are similar in tone and approach. They’re both played broadly for laughs, and are packed with rapid-fire comedy bits, goofy running gags and the occasional winking pop culture reference. For the most part, both succeed in being entertaining, though 21 Jump Street is more consistently funny. More often in The Other Guys, the jokes fall flat or the running gags don’t run too far. Hoitz’s fumbling, desperate attempts to win back his girlfriend Francine (Lindsay Sloane), for example, don’t really bring the chuckles and they eat up a lot of running time.
That film also takes a more shotgun approach to its comedy, spraying sub-plots and jokes all over the place. When it works – as with the classic lion-versus-tuna argument between Hoitz and Gamble that you have to hear to believe – it’s funny and entertaining, but when it doesn’t (Hoitz and Francine), you start to feel its long running time. Feature comedies tend to work best in moderate doses, which is why most of them are 90 to 100 minutes in length. For a nearly two-hour comedy like The Other Guys to work, it needs to be either uproariously funny throughout or have an intricate enough story to carry the audience through, and this film falls short. Jump Street is also on the longish side, but those minutes aren’t as much of a grind because its story is tighter and the laughs come faster and more consistently.
The pairings in the two movies are excellent. Hill/Tatum and Ferrell/Wahlberg both work better than you’d expect them to, with the oddly matched partners playing well against each other to generate humor. The edge here belongs, again, to 21 Jump Street, as both actors get to play for laughs – even Tatum, who hasn’t previously gotten the chance to show the good comedic chops and timing he exhibits here. In The Other Guys, the odd couple is the more traditional goofball/straight man dynamic. Wahlberg’s fine as the latter, but since he’s limited to this duty, his character doesn’t produce nearly as much comedy as does Ferrell’s. In Jump Street, both actors are on funny patrol throughout the movie.
Both movies are funny, and they’re adequately spiced with the usual cop movie tropes (car chases, explosions, gunfights, etc.). But 21 Jump Street has a more focused story driven by two leads who constantly throw off gags; it moves faster and is more entertaining. The Other Guys veers off into side trips that don’t always bring the humor. So Wahlberg and Ferrell have to take another chop down to desk work for this one. Advancing up the police ranks instead is our winner, 21 Jump Street.