As a feature film retread of a vapid ’80s cop show re-imagined as an R-rated slapstick action-comedy starring that one kid from Superbad and that dude from G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, the comedy 21 Jump Street should logically suck. It somehow works, and works well. Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs) succeed in mining familiar terrain for some good laughs, thanks mostly to the unlikely comedic duo of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum.
The prologue, set in 2005, introduces Schmidt (Hill), a chubby geek tragically imitating the fashion sense of Eminem, and Jenko (Tatum), a clueless and underachieving jock. These two are destined for anything but greatness.
Flashforward to the present, where the two help each other (barely) graduate from police academy, and wind up on bicycle patrol in the city park. After botching their first arrest, they are reassigned to the Jump Street unit run by the intimidating, no-nonsense Captain Dickson (a hilariously profane Ice Cube). The two are sent undercover as high school students — posing and siblings, no less — in order to break up a drug ring run by James Franco’s younger brother. (No, really.) Times have changed, however, and so have teens. Geek is the new, diversity is the norm, and Schmidt is now the popular kid while Jenko is the one toiling away in band and AP science.
Hill and Tatum are what make Jump Street work. They make great mismatched partners, like Will Farrell and Mark Wahlberg in the similar The Other Guys. Tatum, often a wooden screen presence, holds back nothing in his first comedic role, and often steals the spotlight from his co-star.
TV show-based movies, buddy cop cliches, and action-movie tropes are all poked fun at, but Lord and Miller aim for more than lazy parody. The series is known for launching the career of Johnny Depp, and little else. (Ah, the unrealized potential of Richard Grieco — one can only imagine what might have been.) There’s no die-hard fan following with rigid expectations, which gives the directors plenty of room to manuever, and they make the movie their own, finding plenty of absurdist humor in the simple premise of two outsiders living out the fantasy of doing high school over again, on their own terms.
At the same time, they poke fun at the source material and shoot holes in Hollywood’s addiction to rehashing old ideas. The comedy is so effective that ironically it’s only during the mundane action sequences that the movie drags.