Recycling an old TV show to make a feature film has had inauspicious results (have you seen “Car 54, Where Are You?”? Or, “The Dukes of Hazzard”?), but “21 Jump Street” revives a lame address with knowing, goofy, often hilarious results. The 1987-1991 Fox TV crime show about the cases of youthful cops going undercover is all but a memory, now mainly known for kickstarting lead actor Johnny Depp’s career (and not so much for Richard Grieco). Jonah Hill developed the story with screenwriter Michael Bacall (“Project X”) and uses the musty premise as a springboard for a raucous post-“Superbad” comedy with action. While it may have sounded like yet another lazily conceived idea, “21 Jump Street” dusts off the straight-faced tone of the long-running ’80s time capsule, gives it a modern, foulmouthed sensibility, and turns the material into a complete blast of quick-witted laughs, playful wit, and fast energy. And it doesn’t hurt that Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum make an inspired comic duo.
Back in high school, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) was the geek, nicknamed “The Not-So-Slim-Shady,” with braces and bleach-blonde Slim Shady hair. He hasn’t the confidence to ask a pretty girl to the prom. Jenko (Channing Tatum) was a long-haired jock who thought he’d be crowned prom king, until missing the dance due to bad grades. Seven years later, these two dudes become the unlikeliest of buds when they both enroll in the Metropolitan City Police Academy and help each other graduate. Thinking the job would come with more car chases, Schmidt and Jenko are assigned to park duty. Their first drug bust and arrest ends disastrously, as Jenko can’t even read his criminal suspects the correct Miranda rights, so their boss (Nick Offerman) transfers them to a revived undercover police program on 21 Jump Street. Gathering at an abandoned church with four other outcasts, Schmidt and Jenko are handed a mission by the angry, stereotype-embracing Captain Dickson (Ice Cube). They must go undercover as high school students, brothers Doug and Brad, to investigate the dealing and supplying of a recent dangerous hallucinogenic drug called H.F.S.
Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (2009’s “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”) assuredly bridge a broad comedy and overblown actioner without face-diving straight into an obvious spoof. From the beginning, they give a wink and a nod to the revamping of ’80s-era properties and the running out of ideas. Throughout, there’s lampooning of the original show and Michael Bay’s overblown, big-budget machines as well. The film knows Hill and Tatum are too old to blend in with high school students but has fun with the idea. For instance, everyone keeps saying Tatum’s Jenko “looks about 40” and must have gone through puberty when he was 7. It also upends high school conventions, as Schmidt and Jenko discover high school has changed since their day. Now, the popular clique is tolerant and somewhat studious; their gatherings even consist of Taco Bell takeout and guitar strumming. Before leaving for school, Jenko even scoffs Schmidt for wearing both straps of his backpack instead of just one. Cut to getting to the school: everyone wears both straps.
Some very funny situational comedy comes when Schmidt and Jenko inadvertently switch their undercover identities, so Schmidt becomes Bradâ€”the athletic, popular oneâ€”and Jenko is Doug, whose class schedule includes AP Chemistry (“Chemistry. That’s the one with the shapes, right?”). When the two come to find the H.F.S. dealer is popular yearbook club member Eric (Dave Franco), they both have to prove they’re not narcs by each swallowing a sample of the drug right in front of him. Thereafter, they’re “tripping ballsack.” Schmidt’s confidence goes through the roof, as he performs an enthusiastic song in his theater class that places him in the lead of the school production of “Peter Pan,” and makes a regular track practice look more fun. Jenko runs into a band practice, not being able to stand on his feet and falling through a gong. The fun continues when the two legals decide to throw a mini-“Project X”-style house party at Schmidt’s parents’ place, stealing a pound of marijuana from a police evidence locker.Â Once the bullets-whizzing action section takes over (and the drug supplier is revealed), there’s violence but it doesn’t repel any of the humor from hitting. A freeway chase with a narcotics ring on the undercover cops’ tail isn’t a standard action chase, but comes with a running gag: flammable gas tanks don’t explode when the characters (and you) expect them to. Johnny Depp (yes, Tom Hanson from the show) even drops in for a cute, clever cameo, as does Holly Robinson Peete for a fleeting moment, but no Richard Grieco?!
Even for a smartly stupid-funny commercial comedy, “21 Jump Street” doesn’t feel the need to dumb down its characters. There’s a dollop of sweetness that never takes a 180 into lesson-learning nonsense. Though Jenko is a bit of a dummy in the early scenes, he’s made a good friendship with Schmidt and holds his loyalty to him. As Schmidt gets a do-over to be cool and popular, fraternizing with Eric and his crowd, Jenko gets tight with the nerds and realizes that being “cool” wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. Near the end of both cops’ undercover mission, their “lesson” is revealed during a well-edited action sequence that, in a less smart film, would’ve just played it out in an after-school special fashion.
In his first physically slimmed-down role, Hill surely hasn’t lost his comic delivery and timing. He can nail a line with merely a deadpan stare. As Schmidt, he gains the confidence that he didn’t have as a high school senior, so it’s easy to root for him. Not since Michael Cera in “Superbad” has Hill found a better foil than in, as it turns out, Tatum. As a former model-turned-hunky actor that has headlined action movies and sappy romances, Tatum is the biggest comedic surprise here. In last year’s Vince Vaughn/Kevin James comedy muddle “The Dilemma,” the actor showed promise for comedy and now he really proves it. He’s not only good-looking but loose, and he has a sense of humor about himself and takes chances, mastering the dumb meathead shtick and, particularly in one scene, forcibly sticks his finger in Hill’s mouth to force the drug out their systems over a toilet. Who knew the kid had it in him? In supporting roles, cute rising star Brie Larsen brings much more to her “The Girl” role, playing Molly (Schmidt’s love interest) with a smartass coolness and sweetness. As Eric, Franco (James’ brother) has charisma and wicked swagger, and achieves more interestingly odd touches than any other vapid actor could. Perhaps it’s in his genes.
A great movie comedy is hard to come by (last year’s “Bridesmaids” comes pretty damn close), so this one isn’t without its bumps in the road. As payoffs of certain subplots go, the circle of science geeks (that Jenko befriends and later help him and Schmidt bug the final drug deal in the hotel room at the prom) is later forgotten about. We don’t really need a scene with them realizing Jenko, or “Brad” in their eyes, is really a cop, but it might’ve been handled with a smoother payoff. Also, it’s set up that Jenko’s cheerful chemistry teacher, Miss Griggs (the adorably funny Ellie Kemper), gets flustered around her hard-bodied peer and secretly wants him, but there’s no real satisfying landing to that joke either. Remember, these are just small oversights. Otherwise, the sight gags and side-splitting quips come at a lightning speed, even when they’re peppered with male-genitalia jokes that feel more organic than just crass for crassness’ sake. It may be early in the year still, but “21 Jump Street” takes a high rank in the comedy field. Can I oversell this riot any more?
109 min., rated R.
GRADE: A –