The new “21 Jump Street” derives its inspiration from the 1980s television series of the same name that starred a young Johnny Depp. Other than a few key elements though, the film adaptation shares little in common with the original source material. Where the show was mostly a by-the-numbers drama that employed moral messages about drugs and alcohol, the film is an action comedy in the tradition of “The Other Guys.” Keep in mind that any movie that earns comparison to “The Other Guys” is a winner in my book.
A movie like this easily could have gone down the same road as the horrifically unfunny “Cop Out” or the unpleasantly mean “Bad Boys” films. Yet, this is one of the rare recent buddy cop movies that gets it just right. There’s rarely a joke that flops thanks to dead-on line-readings from the entire cast. While there is a fair deal of graphic action, it’s all very well choreographed and never distracts from the humor. The film even makes time for a sweet romance in the vein of a John Hughes movie. Try picturing “The Breakfast Club” if they were all given guns and badges.
The film stars Channing Tatum as Greg Jenko and Jonah Hill as Morton Schmidt. The two weren’t exactly friends during high school. Several years later, however, the two become close allies after graduating from the police academy. The macho Jenko is fast and strong, but cannot even remember the Miranda Rights. Schmidt on the contrary is good with facts, but cannot shoot a gun without choking. When you put the two together, they’re most blundering pair of cops this side of “Superbad.”
Due to their youthful appearances, Jenko and Schmidt are assigned to go undercover at a local high school where a new drug has surfaced. Upon arriving, the two are amazed to learn how modern teenagers dominated by texting and Facebook differ from their generation. It turns out that now kids can be environmentally outspoken, active in the theatrical arts, openly gay, and still be considered hip. Thus, the once nerdy Schmidt falls into a group of cool kids led by James Franco’s brother, Dave Franco. Jenko, on the other hand, finds himself befriending three little chemistry geeks, which provides one of the films funniest dynamics.
Despite losing a significant amount of weight and becoming an Oscar nominee, Hill clearly hasn’t lost his natural gift for comedy. But the real breakout performer in “21 Jump Street” is Tatum, who up until now has come off as a pretty bland actor in movies like “G.I. Joe” and “The Vow.” Here he’s perfect as a meathead who has a sincere affection for his partner. While Schmidt and Jenko are not without differences, the audience really believes that they do genuinely enjoy each others’ company. It’s a classic “Odd Couple” pairing.
Other strong performances include Ellie Kemper as a horny teacher, Brie Larson as the cute schoolgirl that catches Schmidt’s eye, and the scene-stealing Ice Cube as the foul-mouthed police captain. The film also features one of the most hilarious and unexpected cameos of all time, which oddly brings both the movie and original series full circle.
The filmmaking duo of Phil Lord and Chris Miller directed “21 Jump Street,” while Michael Bacall of “Scott Pilgrim vs. the Word” penned the script. Where many similar films make the mistake of taking themselves too seriously, these men are never afraid to acknowledge just how improbable “21 Jump Street” is. They often point out that Hill and Tatum are far too old to pass off as high school students and poke fun at tiresome clichés like car explosions. Ultimately this team has made a charming and good-hearted comedy, regardless of the violence, bad language and crude gestures.
• Ahwatukee native and Desert Vista graduate Nick Spake is a student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for five years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.