If you groaned upon hearing the news that the short-lived 1980s detective series 21 Jump Street was getting a big screen remake, prepare to be surprised. Not only does the film depart greatly from the series (the latter was a drama, while the former is 100% action-comedy), but it’s actually good—really good. It’s the funniest new film in several years, and it’s the official coming out party for Channing Tatum as a genuine comedic star.
Back in 2005, Jenko (Tatum) and Schmidt (Jonah Hill) were struggling to get through high school. Jenko had the looks, the athleticism, and the personality needed to thrive, but he couldn’t pass a class to save his life. Schmidt, meanwhile, was without friends and found himself on the receiving end of almost daily humiliation.
Flash forward to the present, and Jenko and Schmidt are together again for their first day of police academy training. Neither has changed much, but they smartly agree that the best way to overcome their weaknesses is together. Unfortunately, their fantasy of an exciting law enforcement career is just that—a fantasy. They ride their bikes around at the park, asking children to stop feeding the ducks. And after their first botched attempt at breaking up a real crime (Jenko couldn’t remember the Miranda rights), they are shipped off to the Jump Street undercover unit, where the appropriately named Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) tells them about their new assignment: Go back to high school to infiltrate the dealers and identify the suppliers of a new synthetic drug that’s killed a student. But neither man is prepared for the realities of a high school culture that’s changed a great deal since they graduated.
Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs fame) smartly gloss over most of Jenko’s and Schmidt’s backstories. While it’s certainly amusing to see Jonah Hill decked out like Eminem and Channing Tatum looking a hell of a lot like Chris Klein in Election, the film is much more interesting when they’re goofing around on the force or back in high school with their roles reversed (Schmidt, it turns out, always was popular. He was just born a few years too early).
The film’s action is played off cartoonishly—arguably another smart decision. Odds are Lord and Miller aren’t going to reinvent the wheel as far as car chases go, so doing them competently, and with a tongue-and-cheek mentality, serves the film quite well. The film’s big action set piece about halfway through includes some absolutely brilliant riffs on familiar action tropes. Everything about the film, from these gags to the character trajectory to the ways it references the television series, is very clever.
Jonah Hill surprised the world last year with his dramatic acting chops in Moneyball, and it’s nice to see him back on familiar territory with this film. He knows the ins and outs of this type of character well (as he should, considering he co-wrote the screenplay), and he and Tatum have great chemistry. The Step Up star is the film’s biggest revelation. He keeps up with Hill and the rest of the all-star comedy ensemble (Rob Riggle, Nick Offerman, Ice Cube) with ease. His character is painfully dim, but the actor steals so many scenes that you’ll wonder why he hasn’t been playing in films like this for years.
If you’re looking for a film to compare this one to, it’s Superbad. Both films feature hilariously bumbling police officers and a pair of misguided young men trying to navigate the weird and wild world that is modern high school. The difference, of course, is that for 21 Jump Street, the cops and the high schoolers are the same characters. Jonah Hill’s presence in both films only enhances the validity of the comparison, and both film’s dirty dialogue and sharp wit would make them a potentially amazing double feature.
It’s not terribly hard to see the potential for some viewers to find 21 Jump Street a little too out-there or over-the-top, but cinematic comedies rarely take as many risks as this film. If safe storytelling and recycled potty humor is your thing, stick with the latest Happy Madison abomination. Real comedy fans, however, should flock to 21 Jump Street. It’s laugh-out-loud hilarious and highly recommended.