There is no need for a “21 Jump Street” movie.
You could say that about much of what Hollywood makes these days, but I remember when the original TV show was on the air, and “21 Jump Street” was, at best, a sort of goofy early attempt by Fox to define itself as a network. It was most notable for being a launch pad for Johnny Depp, and I would argue that no one has spent the time since it went off the air mourning and praying for a resurrection.
What makes the new feature film version of the show, written by Michael Bacall and directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, such a wonderful surprise is that it both overtly acknowledges how frequently awful it is for Hollywood to trade on shameless pre-packaged nostalgia while turning the original into something new with a voice all its own. The story was co-written by Bacall and Jonah Hill, and it acknowledges the absurdity of its own premise even as it leans full-tilt into that absurdity, making it work.
Channing Tatum co-stars with Hill here as two guys who knew each other during high school as social opposites. Tatum was a good-looking lug back then, amiably stupid and able to coast by as part of the popular crowd, while Hill was a disaster, but a smart one. They meet again when they both join the police academy, and they begin to respect each other’s strengths, recognizing that between the two of them, they add up to one complete cop. They manage to draw the wrong sort of attention with their first-ever arrest, and it leads to them joining the special undercover unit that sends adult officers into high schools.
You could, I suppose, make a “serious” version of this film, but why? The premise is ridiculous, and it seems like the best thing these filmmakers did was identify that from the start. When you cast Channing Tatum as a guy who’s pretending to be a high school student, you’d better make non-stop jokes about how insanely unlikely that is. And if you’re going to do a movie like this set in a high school today, you can’t do it with a PG rating. Phil Lord and Chris Miller spun unlikely gold out of “Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs,” but that film doesn’t really hint at the genre subversion and self-awareness that make this one such a genuine pleasure.
Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) may each bring different strengths to their teamwork as cops, but in the film, I am shocked to report that both Hill and Tatum are absolutely equal players in the comedy. Hill’s chops are in fine shape, and he makes this character very credible, but Tatum shocked me. He is flat-out hilarious in the film, and part of that is how his character was written, sure, but only the most obstinate person would deny that Tatum crushes almost every joke he’s given to play. There’s a scene early on in the film where Schmidt and Jenko are forced to ingest a designer drug to prove to a dealer that they’re not cops, and Tatum’s hopped-up rampage through his science class made me howl. He’s also surprisingly touching in how much importance he places on his friendship with Schmidt, and I think it’s amazing how they wring some real emotion out of a movie that is so gleefully silly.
Michael Bacall was the screenwriter of “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World,” and there’s some weird overlap between that film and this one. Johnny Simmons has a fantastic short appearance in a YouTube video that triggers the Schmidt/Jenko investigation in the first place, and Brie Larson shows up as Molly, a girl who represents everything Schmidt feels like he missed in high school the first time around. There’s also just a vocabulary that seems to be part of how Bacall builds the jokes that feels familiar. He’s really starting to come into focus as a writer, and the way he’s writing young people right now in this and “Pilgrim” and, yes, “Project X” marks him as a guy with a very specific and valuable skill set.
In addition to Hill and Tatum, the supporting cast here is great, with Brie Larson, Dave Franco, Rob Riggle, Ice Cube, Chris Parnell, Ellie Kemper, Jake Johnson, and Nick Offerman all scoring big laughs along the way. Because the script gives everyone something to do, the film always feels like it’s offering up something fresh from scene to scene. The film’s action scenes are handled well, but never at the expense of the joke. And while I don’t always think getting an R-rating makes something good, in this case, there’s a delirious abandon to things, and you start to suspect that there’s nothing they won’t say or do for a laugh.
“21 Jump Street” is not a movie with larger social ills or important subjects on its mind, but the way they detonate the original show while still somehow honoring it is impressive, and it is so aggressively funny from start to finish that I can’t imagine an audience unwilling to hand themselves over to the mayhem. Lord and Miller are directors worth paying attention to in the future, and I think this is a case of creative alchemy turning a thankless project into something deeply rewarding for all involved, especially the audience.
“21 Jump Street” opens in theaters March 16.