I never watched 21 Jump Street. I just knew it as the show that launched Johnny Depp’s career. Now it’s been turned into a feature film, with a plot I am told reflects that of the show only on the basest level: cops who look young go undercover at a high school. Other than one over-the-top scene and the title, you’d never know one had anything to do with the other. You might wonder, “Why use the title at all?” And you’d be wasting your time, because the way this product is packaged is irrelevant when the contents are this entertaining.
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as two of the cops going undercover. Their relationship is succinctly conveyed with an anti-nostalgic jaunt to 2005 and a brief montage of their police academy training. After bungling a simple arrest, the two are demoted into the undercover program. Ice Cube earns a few big laughs as the stereotypical angry black sergeant before sending off our heroes. The economy of the first act is impressive. We know these characters, believe in their friendship, and can anticipate their reactions after just 5-10 minutes of film. The first act is also the most hilarious.
Once at school, Tatum, the former big man on campus, is now stuck in nerd classes, while the shy Hill finds himself finally accepted by the cool kids. There’s also the drug network they’ve been tasked to expose, but that’s just a generic plot used to tack on some great jokes (and a great excuse to see these characters trip balls with a case of “the gigs”).
The directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) obviously enjoy good satire; they’ve made a pretty great send-up of cop shows, action films, and high school flicks. It doesn’t have the same polish as Hot Fuzz or the complete zaniness of National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1 (even though I swear it directly references it) but it does have fun subverting the usual clichés. The high school setting distinguishes the film and features my favorite moments. I’m a sucker for a “return to high school” plot and it’s never a bad thing to remind me of Just One of the Guys.
I never hated Tatum, but until now have failed to see what the big deal was. He is perfect in this movie. He plays a character you’d half expect to be the antagonist, but you’re always rooting for him. The chemistry between Tatum and Hill is fantastic. They really capture the essence of a convenient partnership, the false bravado (I love Tatum’s antics while Hill is trying to talk on the phone), and the transition to something meaningful.
While still quite funny, the big action climax feels sloppy. It works but it isn’t nearly as focused as the rest of the film. It also features one gross out gag that belongs in a different movie (you’ll know it when you see it). No matter. I was laughing throughout the movie, and haven’t been able to stop quoting the damn thing since I saw it. Forget about why the movie was made and enjoy it for the comedy classic it is.