The television show 21 Jump Street, about cops who go undercover as high schoolers, debuted on Fox in 1987—one year after the network premiered—and ran until 1991, launching the career of Johnny Depp (who cameos here, along with his former cast mate Holly Robinson Peete). As a sign of the irrefutable progress made since the fearmongering, anti-hedonist Reagan-Bush era, the mixed-bag big-screen 21 Jump Street mocks that program’s lethal earnestness with retrograde raunch, packing in more references to dicks and dick-sucking than 20 Manhunt profiles.
The series’ coed, mixed-race quartet (sometimes quintet) of baby-faced police officers—who’d often appear in post-episode PSAs about AIDS and drug abuse—has been retooled as a white-dude buddy action-comedy that announces its cynicism from the start. After Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum), rookie cops who knew each other in high school in the mid ’00s, botch an arrest, their supervisor (Nick Offerman) reassigns them to a new detail, headquartered at an abandoned church at the address of the title and described as a project from the ’80s now being revamped: “All they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect nobody to notice.” (Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, whose first helming effort was Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, will continue their pop-culture composting in their next high-concept project, Lego: The Piece of Resistance.)
Its own superfluousness readily acknowledged (a similar preemptive strategy was used in A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas last fall), 21 Jump Street tries—and sometimes succeeds—to get laughs from Schmidt and Jenko’s redo of senior year as 25-year-olds. Dispatched to infiltrate a high school drug ring by Jump Street’s Captain Dickson (Ice Cube, whose eruptive delivery—”There’s . . . rumors . . . in the . . . Twitter-sphere . . .”—is hilarious, even if the panicky peen obsession extending to character names isn’t), Schmidt and Jenko go undercover as transfer students and brothers. But, mixing up their aliases, Schmidt, a member of the Juggling Society and all-around pariah during his real high school years, is, in 2012, a drama-club star whose self-deprecation makes him tight with today’s cool kids; Jenko, a thick former varsity footballer, must now fake his way through AP chemistry.
The lead actors’ own chemistry works in part thanks to the disparity in their body types. Although radically smaller than he used to be, Hill still has an endomorph’s awkward carriage—an ungainliness balanced by Tatum’s ripped physique and taurine strength. Their chub-cop/cut-cop juxtaposition is funniest when they’re suited up in prom-night white tuxes and during a blowout they host at Schmidt’s parents’ house, now the officers’ base. (This 10-minute tribute to adolescent debauchery tops the recently released, execrable Project X, co-scripted by Michael Bacall, who also wrote 21 Jump Street.)
But though these mismatched cops bounce well off each other, Tatum, in his first comedic lead role, is the better performer, both more riotous and affecting. The actor, who was such a good sport during his hosting gig on SNL last month (which required him to make fun of his male-stripper past), mines the pathos in his meathead role, the once-popular jock now plagued with insecurities seven years after graduation. “Is this playlist too dancey?” the slab of muscle frets to Schmidt during the party. Hill, on the other hand, relies on the same kind of comedic tics that have defined him since 2007’s Superbad (another kind of teenage-impersonation movie made when the actor was 23): the nervous, verbose overexplaining of the underconfident smart aleck. The outrageous nonsense delivered meekly gets laughs on occasion (particularly when Schmidt must make excuses for his partner during a parking-lot cold-cocking on their first day undercover), but Hill never leaves his comfort zone.
The movie also stays firmly within the schizoid parameters of recent American comedy, contradicting its own initial above-it-all contemptuousness—toward the source material, toward itself—by becoming a sticky bro love-in. “Make fun of people who care,” is the advice Jenko gives Schmidt as they prepare to go to high school a second time. The jock soon discovers that the disdain that served him well seven years ago no longer applies in an era of eco-conscious teens. 21 Jump Street also drops the sneering after 30 minutes, ending with one cop declaring to the other, “I fuckin’ cherish you.”