The earnestly silly TV series, 21 Jump Street, about young undercover detectives, ran from 1987 to 1991, helping the fledgling Fox network reach a youth demographic, whilelaunching Johnny Depp’s career. A quarter century later, the title provides an opportunity for a raunchy, stoner bro-comedy, pairing schlubby misfit Schmidt (Jonah Hill) with handsome but dumb pal, Jenko (Channing Tatum) as a couple of inept cops sent to infiltrate a high-school drug ring.
The new 21 Jump Street, directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller (the animated Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) is a try-anything, fitfully amusing muddle that wears its mocking cynicism a bit too proudly. After Schmidt and Jenko blow a high-profile case, their supervisor (Nick Offerman) assigns them to a new division, which exists, he explains, only because the police have run out of new ideas. All they can do is recycle crap from the eighties “and expect nobody to notice.” In a similar vein, the detective in charge of the program (Ice Cube) is an angry black man who explains that he’s an angry black man. “Embrace your stereotypes!” he bellows.
In truth, 21 Jump Street is less a copy of the TV series than another Superbad, in which Hill also starred, an excuse for comic actors to goof on the back-to-school experience. Schmidt and Jenko, both 25, pose as brothers who are new to the school. Through a mix-up, they end up switching identities. Schmidt, the nerd, finds himself taking bird courses (drama) and running track while former star athlete, Jenko, is stuck in advanced chemistry, hanging out with the geek squad.
Naturally, a blowout teen party (the cops steal party supplies from the police lock-up), which allows screenwriter Michael Bacall to offering a 10-minute précis version of Project X (which he co-scripted). Otherwise, Johnny Depp makes a cameo and James Franco’s younger brother, Dave Franco, makes a brief impression as a wistful, eco-friendly, anti-bullying drug dealer.
Throughout, Hill (who shares story credits with screenwriter Bacall) plays it supersafe, reprising his usual shtick as the nervously verbose misfit. Tatum, though, is a pleasant surprise. Too often cast as the wooden dreamboat ( Dear John, The Vow), he seems freed up doing comedy, like a younger Brendan Fraser, with a sweetness that contrasts with his hulking physique.
As 21 Jump Street lurches toward its noisy prom-meets-gunfight ending, the penis and gay panic jokes proliferate with Superbad intensity. They’re tedious but a lot less creepy than the romantic heterosexual subplot which sees Schmidt, as a supposed misfit 25-year-old cop pretending to be a teenager, hitting on a high-school student (Brie Larsen). Aren’t there laws against that?
21 Jump Street
- Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller
- Written by Michael Bacall
- Starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum
- Classification: 14A
- 2 stars