I won’t go so far as to say it’s good, but 21 Jump Street is certainly better than it has any right to be. And while that assessment might be in part due to lowered expectations, there are undeniable points of cleverness and a reasonably congenial atmosphere to the whole thing. It’s also a lot better than the trailer suggested. In the end, it probably comes down to being a movie that’s largely under the heading of “I didn’t mind sitting through it.” Sometimes that’s enough.
Rather than being a straightforward attempt at transferring the old TV show to the big screen, this 21 Jump Street is not only a spoof of the original, but of the whole idea of making movies like this in the first place. In fact, probably the cleverest single line in the film concerns the concept that the 21 Jump Street unit exists because the police have “run out of new ideas, so basically we recycle old shit and hope nobody notices.” A not inapt description of what passes for a Hollywood movie these days. There are, however, nods to the original show—including bits for Peter DeLuise, Holly Robinson Peete, and, yes, Johnny Depp. It’s the sort of thing that works in a movie like this without being distracting.
The film briefly gives us a glimpse of the high school years (way back in 2005) of Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum), when Schmidt was an unpopular nerd and Jenko was a popular jock. The scenes from that era are blessedly kept at a minimum (they’re not very good), but they’re necessary to the trajectory of the story of what happens when they go back to high school undercover. Though never friends (nor exactly enemies) in high school, the two bond in basic police training, because Schmidt is good at the tests and Jenko is good at the physical side. When they’re ingloriously posted as bicycle cops, they manage to screw up a drug bust, in large part because Jenko has only the sketchiest notion of a Miranda warning (“You have the right to remain an attorney”), which is what gets them sent to Jump Street—and the blustering, foul-mouthed, ill-tempered Captain Dickson (Ice Cube—far removed from that family-friendly dreck he’s been in for years now). Nevermind that they could hardly pass as high schoolers (something the film recognizes and plays with).
The plot is merely serviceable stuff—busting a drug ring at the high school—but what works best about the movie has to do with an outgrowth of their basic ineptitude. They’ve been given backgrounds to put them in the classes that suit them, but since they haven’t bothered to figure out their names, they claim the wrong ones and end up in wildly inappropriate classes—only they don’t. Being thrust into situations and societies that are foreign to them, both Jenko and Schmidt turn out to be more capable than anyone—including themselves—thought. Oh, sure, it’s fairly predictable, but it works surprisingly well—right down to a sufficiency of subtext to float the Lusitania.
Both Hill and Tatum are likable in their roles—and that surprises me a good bit in Tatum’s case. He’s quite agreeable as an ultimately sweet-tempered dumb jock. (Unlike Roger Ebert, though, I do not think Tatum should be considering old Cary Grant roles! Ye gods, what a thought. In fact, during the movie my wife asked me if he was “what’s considered attractive these days.”) The biggest problem with the film occurs in its last stretch. Not only do directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller fall back on action-picture basic when the film gets to its climax, but the tone of the last scenes is far too nasty and mean-spirited for the rest of the movie. It doesn’t ruin things—or maybe I can forgive any movie with a Korean Jesus a little bit—but it also doesn’t really fit. Rated R for crude and sexual content, pervasive language, drug material, teen drinking and some violence.