With Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube, Brie Larson, Rob Riggle. Written by Michael Bacall. Directed by Phil Lord, Chris Miller. Rated R (for crude and sexual content, pervasive language, drug material, teen drinking and some violence). 109 minutes.
It’s an odd feeling to note that many in the target audience for 21 JUMP STREET wasn’t even born when the show became one of the first breakout out hits for the fledgling FOX Network. Those under-30s will likely miss the in-joke cameos of original cast members too. It doesn’t matter, though, as this is one of the best big screen adaptations of an old TV show since “The Brady Bunch” in 1995. Unlike “Star Trek,” there isn’t a huge fan base ready to criticize the slightest deviation from the “canon.” Instead, it’s a fun sendup that asks what if the 25-year-old series was relaunched today.
Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are 25-year-old cops who are sent back to their high school as undercover agents by their commanding officer Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) who explains that the police force has run out of ideas and is recycling a bunch of old ones. Their job is to find out who is distributing a new drug as well as who is supplying it. In a prologue, we see that Jenko was once one of the cool kids as a teenager while Schmidt was part of the Juggling Club, marking him as a loser. Part of the joke is how much high school has changed since then.
When they arrive at the school, Jenko is confused as to his undercover identity and assumes the role of the nerd while Schmidt is supposed to be the jock and hang with the cool kids. Ironically, they find they fit in perfectly. Schmidt, who couldn’t get a date for his own prom, attracts the attention of Molly (Brie Larson), with whom he ends up co-starring in a high school production of “Peter Pan.”
It’s not a story we’re meant to take seriously, but there is a mystery as to the identity of the drug kingpin, as well suspense sequences where there are plenty of laughs but the consequences are real. Schmidt runs into an aunt in public who loudly announces not only that he’s a cop but she’s heard he’s working undercover while he frantically tries to get her to shut up. There’s also a couple of car chases including a prom night pursuit that involves not one but three stretch limos.
The over-exposed Tatum, in his third movie appearance in three months, proves to be funny and likeable as the one-time high school jock who has to rely on the kindness of nerds to succeed. Hill, who collaborated on the story with screenwriter Michael Bacall (who also wrote the head-scratchers “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” and “Project X”), manages to transcend his stereotypical loser character, making him both funny and heroic. Larson, likewise, carries off what might have been the standard “love interest” without turning her into a male fantasy pin-up.
A witty script which mixes slapstick, action and some clever plot twists provides the cast with sufficient material to make “21 Jump Street” more than just another TV cop show tossed onto the big screen. It doesn’t matter if you never saw the original, because this movie is a clever, fast-paced, standalone action comedy that should please audiences looking to kick back and have some fun.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.