From the moment rookie cops Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) get their assignment to go undercover in a high school, because, according to their sergeant, the force’s higher-ups “lack creativity” and simply “recycle old ideas from the ’80s,” I knew I was in good hands.
Look, 21 Jump Street is hardly the first film to playfully acknowledge its own lame concept or to send up the buddy cop genre with a wink, but it certainly does it with style.
There are all sorts of clever recurring bits in this film, but among the best is the fact that, although Schmidt and Jenko are only seven years out of high school themselves—Schmidt was a brace-faced nerd and Jenko was a bullying big man on campus—all the rules have changed.
No one calls on the telephone anymore. (It’s all about texting now.) Not caring about anything, which Jenko tells Schmidt is a sure way to secure popularity, has been replaced by environmental and social activism. Nerds are now cool. Gay kids are celebrated.
“I know the culprit,” moans Jenko. “Glee.”
Another ingenious bit: Jenko is so dim-witted he has forgotten his undercover assignment name, so he ends up with the wrong identity. Now, instead of track and drama club, he’s enrolled in AP Chemistry (or “app Chemistry” as he calls it). It’s Schmidt, undercover as his (adopted) brother, who gets the cool-guy classes, and the accompanying cool-guy cred.
So what does any of this have to do with the solidly unfunny (not intentionally at least) original TV show that launched Johnny Depp into the stratosphere? Not much: Ice Cube is around as the sergeant who, as in the show, is angry for no particular reason. There are other undercover cops posing as teens—like in the show, they are a strategically multicultural group—but they mostly hang in the periphery here. As for whether or not Depp makes a much-anticipated cameo? Wouldn’t you like to know?
I laughed a lot during 21 Jump Street, once to the point where I became self-conscious about it. (That LOL moment was brought to you by a shrine of sorts that Schmidt’s parents have set up of him in their home: “It looks like I died in a car crash when I was 10 and you still haven’t moved on,” Schmidt grumbles.)
Another recurring bit that never failed to bring on the giggles: Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller keep setting us up for a big explosion or macho set piece that simply never materializes. “Get ready to be bad asses!” Jenko says, as the music swells. Cut to Jenko and Schmidt riding cop bicycles in a bucolic park. “Get down!” they say, ducking, as an oil tanker gets riddled with bullets. Again, nothing goes boom.
Clever as this is, none of this work without the great chemistry between Tatum and Hill, who are simply adorable together. (Come to think of it, who doesn’t Hill have great chemistry with? The moon-faced actor brings out the best in his male co-stars, from Brad Pitt to Michael Cera to Russell Brand, and now Tatum.)
The year is young, but 21 Jump Street gets my early nod for 2012’s most pleasant surprise.